Rugby: We will never see Bill McLaren's like again

IF winning an international cap is the pinnacle of a rugby player's career, then the journalistic equivalent was to find yourself in a press box alongside Bill McLaren who has died, aged 86.

I was occasionally lucky enough to do that, and the first occasion was before beginning a 29-year (and counting) stint as Evening News rugby correspondent and while Bill was less than halfway through his legendary spell as the voice of rugby on BBC.

It was a wet day on the Murrayfield back pitches and Bill's very first remark to this schoolboy reporter assigned to cover an Edinburgh Wanderers match was succinct as he pointed to a player on the pitch: "He shouldn't be passing the ball so hard to a man just two feet away in this weather!"

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Later in that match, Bill passed on the tale of a local reporter he'd seen noting the names only of the home team to assist his coverage, saying: "Never do that, son. There's always two teams, remember." It would be nice to think even a wee bit of that patronal advice stuck.

It did, though, sum up Bill McLaren – always perceptive and always unbiased and, boy, what astronomical sum would a seat next to Bill at an international have fetched at auction by the time he had hung up his microphone?

But there was so much more to the man because, as Jim Renwick, former Scotland cap record holder and British Lion from McLaren's home town of Hawick, puts it: "Bill always said he'd had the privilege of seeing so many good players but I'd put it the other way round.

"Players always felt it was a privilege to meet Bill McLaren, who had time for everybody whether they were good players or not."

The true measure of McLaren's commentary genius is the fact that, as Andy Irvine, ex-Scotland captain and Lion points out, he was able to draw in the "grannies, aunties and those who would never otherwise watch a game of rugby".

An easy mistake to make, though, would be to think Bill simply rolled up at five minutes to kick-off and called the game.

Ian Barnes, Edinburgh Accies coach and a former Scotland internationalist, grew up in the house next to Bill McLaren and his adored wife Bette – he would always refer to her as "goddess" – in Hillend Drive on the Hawick council estate of Burnfoot.

Said Barnes: "Bill was meticulous in his commentary preparations and would enlist us kids to help him. Before, say, Scotland against Wales, he'd have two sets of cards numbered 1-15 with the names of each player on them.

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"We'd have to flash up the cards and he would say who they represented along with a couple of facts about each player."

According to Barnes, assistance was a quid-pro-quo arrangement: "Bill had the only television in our street. He was such a decent bloke he'd allow me and my pals in to watch children's hour before Bette sent us packing for our tea.

"By profession, Bill was a PE teacher and the basics he instilled in rugby players at primary school carried right through to the senior club. In that respect, the great Hawick side of the 70s (winners of the first five Scottish league titles) was Bill's team with Derrick Grant providing the organisation."

Others came to know Bill in later life, including British and Irish Lions captains.

Finlay Calder, of Stewart's-Melville, who led the Lions to a series victory in Australia in 1989, said: "Bill fought in the war and saw some terrible atrocities which enabled him to put things into perspective.

"He always appeared to be at peace with himself and, if you can do that, then you must surely be fulfilled."

Watsonian Gavin Hastings, captain of the Lions against the All Blacks in 1993, spoke of his pride at being commentated on by McLaren, saying: "I can still hear Bill's words as I was fortunate enough to score the winning try for Scotland against France in Paris in 1995: 'The big man – he's done it again!'

"It's my personal memory of what was a fairly significant moment in my rugby career."

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Honoured with the MBE, OBE and CBE and, within the game, a Freedom of Scottish Rugby award in 2000, McLaren he also became the first non-international player to be inducted into the IRB's Hall of Fame in 2001. Perhaps Bill's greatest achievement, however, was surviving what was then a killer disease after returning from the Second World War.

A flanker for Hawick he had a trial for Scotland in 1947 and was on the verge of a full international cap when he contracted tuberculosis, which nearly killed him.

"I was desperately ill and fading fast when the specialist asked five of us to be guinea pigs for a new drug called Streptomycin. Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery," said McLaren in 2001 and the world of rugby rejoiced that he found his way into commentary although perhaps a lingering sadness remained.

Once I asked Bill if he'd swap his commentary experiences for five minutes of international action as a Scotland player.

The answer was a unequivocal 'yes'. Bill McLaren, as well as being the world's greatest commentator known and loved from Niddrie in Edinburgh to Ngongotaha in New Zealand, knew his priorities, all right.

McLaren is survived by his wife, Bette, and daughter Linda. Another daughter, Janey, pre-deceased him in 2000.