28 January 2001
Brough Scott finds that BBC commentator Bill McLaren, 77, has lost none of his enthusiasm as he prepares for the Six Nations
Every evening this week Bill McLaren and his wife Bette will go into the old routine. Bette will sit reading in front of the fire while Bill pulls up his battered old brown briefcase and takes out an equally battered-looking set of playing cards numbered one to 15 and a large, wrinkled piece of paper with a mass of hand-scribbled facts about the English and Welsh teams.
“I shuffle the cards,” he says, “turn one over, it’s the nine, that’s Matt Dawson, remember those two brilliant tries for the Lions. I heard the great commentator Raymond Glendening did it for the horse racing and thought I could adapt it for rugby. I once met Richard Dimbleby when he came to Hawick to present Down Your Way. In his hotel room was a mass of notes. `I only use four per cent,’ he told me, `but the other 96 per cent are there if I need them.’ “
It is now half a century since `The Voice of Rugby’ was first heard. When he got the original invitation from the BBC, he threw it in the bin, thinking it was a wind-up from his colleague Len Clark on the news desk of the Hawick Express. Even when he got established, he never took a Lions tour because it would conflict with the busy schedule of his “real work” as a PE teacher (and therefore referee for countless matches every week).
Bill McLaren did, and does, broadcast about rugby just because he loves it. And was born to it, shaped for it, read for it. At 77, Bill is as much a part of this Scottish rugby heartland as those border stone walls. As an eight-year-old, he was writing detailed accounts of fictional rugby matches. “Scotland once beat the Rest of the World 85-11,” he says happily, “and I think I had Jock Beattie (that’s B-E-A-T-T-I-E) scoring three tries.”
In 1936, when he was 12, his father took him down to Twickenham to see Scotland beaten only 9-8 despite Hawick’s Rob Barrie going off with a broken collarbone after 10 minutes. “He was tackling the big Sale wing,” says Bill in automatic recall, “Hal Sever (that’s S-E-V-E-R), 14 and a half stones, in those days that was massive.”
Bill’s own playing dreams stretched to making the Hawick team as a 17-year-old wing forward before the Second World War and then, after four years on the Italian campaign, he had made the final trial for Scotland before tuberculosis struck. “I was sent to East Fortune Sanatorium in North Berwick,” he says. “They told me I would be four years in bed. I lost three and a half stones and then they tried half a dozen of us on Streptomycin (that’s S-T-R-E-P-T-O-M-Y-C-I-N). Three of the fellers died. Two got no help, and I was completely cured. My X-rays went all over Europe.”
On the 19-month road to recovery (hugely aided by Bette bussing up every weekend with extra meat rations from her Uncle Watty), he had started to commentate. To amuse fellow patients, he broadcast on the hospital radio from the putting green to the table tennis tournament. Bill had no inkling at the time, but East Fortune’s Dr William Murray had not just saved his life, he had given him a new one.
Not one that should ever be confused with the normal preconception of media superstars. He and Bette have never thought of leaving Hawick, its bumpy bridge over the River Teviot and its steep south side from which the neat but unpretentious McLaren house looks down and over Wilton Lodge playing fields which remain Bill’s spiritual home.
“I remember the thrill of being out there so many times of a Saturday morning, 120 primary school boys playing enthusiastic rugby. Colin Deans and Jim Renwick were there. I would have refereed them, and seen their sons come through. You canna think of anything more satisfying than that.”
The most famous McLarenism of all “they will be dancing in the streets of Hawick tonight” after Tony Stanger’s try against England at Murrayfield in 1990 works because Bill knew it to be true. Stanger had been with him as a boy at Wilton Lodge.
Optimistic still, but can Bill really give Scotland much chance after the four defeats of 2000? “Oh, I don’t think things will be too bad at all,” he says, a sense of expectation entering the famous voice.
“It all depends if the tight five can hold the line. We have got a good selection of lock forwards and I see that they might be bringing George Graham back into the front row. Now he’s a tough old fellow and, of course, Richard Metcalfe, he’s a colossus. But if the tight five hold it, we have quite a tricky set of backs. Gregor of course, I see Glen Metcalfe may be coming back, John Leslie at his best is tremendous at allowing others to play off him and young Murray is a tremendous force on the right . . .”
There is a pause, you look out of the window down across the river and through the trees to where those playing fields stretch out as an invitation to future generations. Then rugby lovers worldwide can take heart as McLaren goes on to say, as he more than anyone is entitled to say, “I think we are in for a great championship.”