It’s 10 years since Bill McLaren died at the age of 86, a passing so significant for so many it required the memorial service that followed to be held at Murrayfield Stadium. Owen Morgan salutes the voice of rugby who provided the soundtrack to a childhood in Wales.
Scrolling through Twitter the other day, in search of something to cheer my mood during these worrying times, I stumbled across a nugget of pure gold.
Inspired by the boredom of having no sport to commentate on, the BBC’s multi-talented maestro of the microphone Andrew Cotter decided to transform his Labradors’ feeding time into a sporting event.
The voice of rugby union, athletics, golf and many other sports, produced a commentating master class to accompany what for dog owners is an everyday occurrence.
But it wasn’t what he was commentating on, it was how he commentated on it, producing lines like “focussed, relentless, tasting absolutely nothing”, which will strike a chord with any owner of a Labrador.
His skill and turn of phrase made me think of another brilliant Scottish commentator – the great Bill McLaren, who we sadly lost 10 years ago this January just passed.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a whole decade since the great man’s death, and even more difficult to comprehend that he actually retired from commentating in 2002 when he called the Wales v Scotland Six Nations match.
It was fitting McLaren called it a day commentating an encounter between the land of his birth and the land that claimed him as one of its own. Indeed, one fan unfurled a banner at the match proclaiming, “Bill McLaren is Welsh!”
My favourite tribute to McClaren at the time of his death came from former Wales and British Lions player Mark Taylor.
Olive and Mabel really got after it 😂
— ESPN (@espn) March 27, 2020
Pontypool, Swansea, Scarlets and Ospreys centre Taylor was asked live on BBC Radio Wales’ Scrum V programme what his recollections of the great man from Hawick were.
Without hesitation, Taylor immediately recounted his first meeting with McLaren, at a Wales training session.
The centre was the 23rd man in Wales’s squad and was standing on the touchline watching the match-day 22 going through their preparations, when McLaren walked up next to him and said: “Hello, Mark.”
“I was landed,” recalled Taylor, with genuine excitement in his voice. “I thought ‘Wow, Bill McLaren has just said hello to me’!”
It’s the kind of reaction you would expect from a young schoolboy if a star player had strolled up and said hello, let alone an international rugby player, who went on to play 52 times for his country and five times for the British Lions.
That such a simple and casual greeting should have stayed in the mind of an international rugby player throughout a career, which saw him captain his country, among many other highlights, and still provoked such a nostalgic and excited response many years later, is truly remarkable.
But that is what set Bill McLaren apart from other commentators. Not only did the fans hang on his every word, but so did the players.
Former Ireland captain Keith Wood said: “Bill was unique – a one-off who commanded the utmost respect and affection.
“When rugby went professional, the media were barred from the eve-of-match training sessions. Bill was the only one allowed in.”
In the same way that Mark Taylor was delighted that Bill McLaren knew his name, I can remember as a child being excited when he mentioned my home village of Gwaun-Cae-Gurwen (of course with a pronounced roll of the r in Gurwen) when Gareth Edwards had done something particularly inspiring.
“Bill McLaren just mentioned ‘The Waun’ on national television! Wow!” Ok, not as impressive as Mark Taylor’s recollection, but you get my drift.
Just like the theme tune to Grandstand on international Saturdays, Bill McLaren’s voice was just as much a part of my childhood rugby memories as Merv’s headband, or Phil’s side-step.
Surely, he is the only man in the world who could ever get away with describing JPR Williams as a “fool-back”, in that wonderful Borders burr.
Sometimes, he would drop quite unusual words into his commentary.
Remember Paul Thorburn’s (another name just made for those rolling rs) intercontinental penalty kick against McLaren’s native Scotland?
Here’s how the great man described it: “Thorburn then . . . woof! What a belt he’s given it. That is amazing!”
Woof? Why woof? But when you listen to the commentary, coupled with the pictures, it’s perfect.
But to me, what made him so special was that he was so completely unbiased.
There was no doubt he was a passionate and proud Scotsman, but when he was in the commentary box, his love of the game seemed to transcend all national boundaries.
If Bill McLaren said it was a brilliant try, then you knew it was brilliant because of the quality of rugby, not the colour of the jerseys worn by the team who scored it.
With Thorburn’s kick, McLaren just sounded delighted to have been a witness to a remarkable piece of rugby history, no matter that it was against Scotland.
It did seem at times, though, that Wales were picking on him, producing some magical moments against his native country.
But every time, he would show his professionalism and match the brilliance being inflicted on his nation down on the pitch, with the perfect accompaniment up in the commentary box.
Here are just a few:
Gareth Edwards’s lung bursting individual try in 1972: “The kick ahead by Edwards . . . can he score . . . it would be a miracle if he could . . . he may well get there . . . and he has! The sheer magic of Gareth Edwards has brought the whole stadium to its feet.”
Phil Bennett’s chin on the ball finish of the brilliant Welsh score in 1977, which McLaren described as the try of the championship.
And last, but not least, Ieuan Evans side-stepping in from touchline to posts for Wales against Scotland in 1988. McLaren accompanied the action with:
“Merlin the Magician couldn’t have done it any better”. Perfect praise for the man known as the Carmarthen Cowboy.
And all this before we even start mentioning demented ferrets up wee drainpipes, mad octopuses or inebriated conversions.
I’m sure that a man with such a wonderful gift for a memorable turn of phrase would have nodded his approval at his countryman raising the spirit of a nation with a unique commentary of a pair of Labradors enjoying their breakfast.
McLaren’s legacy is safe in the hands of Cotter.