Bill McLaren, known as the “Voice of Rugby” during his nearly 50 years as the BBC’s commentator on the sport, has died at the age of 86.
McLaren retired from the microphone in 2002. Originally a school teacher and a rugby coach, during his commentary career he received an OBE, CBE and MBE for services to the sport.
He was renowned throughout the sport for his enthusiasm and a memorable turn of phrase.
McLaren was born in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, in 1923 and grew up to be a useful flank forward. He served with the Royal Artillery in Italy during the Second World War.
McLaren played in a Scotland trial in 1947 and was on the verge of a full international cap when he contracted tuberculosis. Although he survived the disease, he was unable to continue playing rugby.
McLaren studied Physical Education in Aberdeen, and went on to teach PE in different schools in Hawick until 1987.
He coached several players who went on to play for Scotland: inside centre Jim Renwick, hooker Colin Deans and winger Tony Stanger.
It was through his junior reporting with the Hawick Express that he launched himself into his commentating career.
In 1953, he made his national debut for BBC Radio covering Scotland’s 12-0 loss to Wales. The switch to television came in 1959.
In 2001, he was the first non-international player to be inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.
He was married to Bette. His son-in-law is former Scotland rugby scum half Alan Lawson. They have five grandchildren, including Scotland scrum-half and Gloucester player Rory Lawson and Edinburgh’s Jim Thompson.
Tributes to McLaren from rugby, journalism and broadcasting figures poured in this evening, led by Ian McGeechan.
The Lions coach, who was knighted in the New Year’s Honours, said, “For me growing up, Bill was the voice of rugby alongside Cliff Morgan. You will never know how many people Bill brought to the game by the way he commentated.
“He was an absolute gentleman, totally unbiased. He had the knack of always looking for the best in players and had a massive positive impact on us.
“I don’t think anyone could ever estimate just what his value has been to the game and what he has done.
“But above all Bill didn’t just have a massive impact because of rugby. It was also because of his knowledge and understanding of people.”
Andy Irvine, the former Scotland and Lions full-back, said: “He had the most magnificent voice, a great Hawick twang. And he had great experience of the game.
“I don’t think people understand just how dedicated he was. He researched the game more than anyone I can think of.”
Gregor Townsend, the former Scotland and Lions back who is now on his national team’s coaching staff, said, “Bill was fantastic. A Scot and a Borderer – a global rugby figure that everybody held in the highest regard.
“As a youngster, I used to cut out the articles Bill wrote in The Herald.
“I remember he wrote about me when I played for Gala against Melrose and he had such a technical grasp of the game and was able to offer advice for things for a young player to work on. He knew his rugby all right,” Townsend said.
“He was the iconic voice of rugby who many of us grew up with,” said Martin Johnson, the former Lions captain and the only British player ever to lift the World Cup as captain. “He will be sadly missed.”
RFU President John Owen said: “Bill McLaren was both the voice and the heart of rugby union. His prodigious knowledge of the sport was accompanied by a style that epitomised all that is best in the game.
“It is unsurprising that the crowd sang ‘For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow!’ at his last match commentating – for that is exactly what Bill was.”
The SJA joined the tributes, and sends its condolences to the McLaren family. “Bill was an out-and-out rugby man, but always the consummate professional,” said Barry Newcombe, the SJA chairman and leading member of the Rugby Writers’ Club. “He will be sadly missed.”
“It was the discipline of his preparation which made him such a formidable broadcaster,” said Newcombe. “He learned to watch and concentrate early in his life when he was a spotter with the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. His methods should be an example to any young journalist, because when he went into the commentary box he was ready for any eventuality and never missed a trick.
“In the days leading up to his next assignment, he hunted down all the information he could on teams, grounds, referee, touch judges and coaches. He had facts and figures galore on the players who were to be out there in front of him. Those work cards had the players’ names on one side, their shirt number on the other. For the 44 players in an international match, McLaren had his own detailed listings. It was his safety belt, to ensure that he would know enough about each one of the players, and referee, should it be necessary.
“He created his unique position in rugby broadcasting at a time when there far fewer Test matches than there are today and he sat comfortably alongside some of the giants of BBC commentary.
“McLaren’ gift for making the viewer feel as if he was talking directly to them never faded. He was a great man to be on the road with as the development of the game opened up new vistas in increased international tours and, from 1987, the arrival of Rugby World Cup.”
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