William Pollock ‘Bill’ McLaren, CBE, rugby player, teacher, journalist, rugby union commentator, and ‘the Voice of Rugby’, was born on the 16th of October, 1923.
Bill McLaren belonged to that rare breed of principled, impartial, non-partisan, sports commentator that is all but extinct now. Just think how nice it would be if all commentators on football and rugby were to ‘tell it like it is’ instead of cranking up the jingoism quotient at every opportunity. Biased prejudice is all too common nowadays, particularly in football, but it is also becoming more commonplace in rugby, and it brings not only the professional commentator, but also the sport and the broadcaster into disrepute. So until recently, the British public has been blessed with the quality of its sports commentators and there have been very few as iconic as Bill McLaren. Without question, Bill was the ‘Voice of Rugby Union Football’, whose celebrated career and status was formed by calling many of the biggest rugby games for the BBC. From his radio days in the 1950s to the ‘Five Nations’ and then the ‘Six Nations’ on television, including ‘Lions’ tours and World Cups along the way, Bill was simply the best. He received quite a bit of formal recognition in his career, including becoming the only non-player to be inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame. However, the glaring omission is that Bill has yet to gain a Knighthood. If Princess Anne had been Queen, that particular oversight would’ve been rectified a long time ago.
William Pollock McLaren was born in Hawick on the 16th of October, 1923. His lifelong passion for rugby union began back in 1935, when his father took him to watch the All Blacks and William naturally went on to play for the local High School. Later, he played flank forward for the Hawick first XV and was making progress towards greater recognition when the Second World War broke out. Bill joined up and served in Italy as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. Deep in hostile territory and often on his own, Bill’s role as an observer was to identify enemy targets and relay the information back to his unit by radio. It was a dangerous job, but Bill never thought of himself as any kind of hero and perhaps his ability to provide concise and accurate reports served him well in his subsequent career. He wrote a stirring account of his wartime service in his autobiography, where he deals with his experiences during the Battle for Monte Cassino. In chapter three entitled “A Vision of Hell on Earth’ Bill recounts how the scenes of death and devastation came to haunt him all his life. At the age of twenty-one, seeing such horrific sights and surviving where so many did not, changed Bill’s attitude to sport. Rugby may have been in his blood, but as he said, “in the great scheme of things it really doesn’t matter.”
After the War, Bill resumed his rugby, turned out for Scotland against the Army and, in 1947, was on the verge of a full Scotland cap when he took part in an international trial. Sadly, he was struck down by tuberculosis. In fact, the tuberculosis very nearly killed him, but for the treatment he received during the nineteen months he spent in the East Fortune sanatorium, in East Lothian. As he went on to recall later, “I was desperately ill and fading fast when the specialist asked five of us to be guinea pigs for a new drug called Streptomycin.” The new antibiotic worked its magic on Bill as he himself said poignantly, “Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery.” Unsurprisingly, his illness meant he was forced to give up playing the game he loved. Bill badly wanted to play for his country and the fact that he didn’t manage to win a Scottish cap was “The greatest regret of my life” he said in a 2005 interview. “I didn’t need 50 caps,” he said, “One would have done me fine.”
After his recovery, he studied Physical Education in Aberdeen and went on to become a primary school PE teacher. He was a schoolmaster all his working life, despite his worldwide renown. He had no taste for celebrity and resisted all invitations to become a full-time broadcaster. Amusingly, Bill McLaren’s first commentary was made when he described table tennis matches for the hospital radio. However, you might say his first proper commentary came after the editor of the Hawick Express, for whom Bill was covering rugby as a reporter, recommended him to the BBC. By way of an audition, he commentated for Scottish radio on a game between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and that led to his first professional radio commentary, on the South of Scotland versus the touring Springboks at Mansfield Park, in 1952. His national radio debut came with the Scotland versus Wales Five Nations’ match in 1953. The switch to television and the BBC’s Grandstand programme came six years later, in 1959. Bill’s final commentary was on the 6th of April, 2002, when Scotland defeated Wales 27-22 to cap a wonderful farewell at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
The key to Bill’s success as a commentator was his meticulous preparation and his famous ‘big sheets’ covered in multi-coloured biro, which have become collector’s items. He was also famous for his habit of handing out a Hawick Ball – the minty sweet – as his subtle way of throwing a player off guard, before gaining the little insights that made his commentaries so memorable. Of course, Bill’s mellifluous voice and his unique descriptions of play and wonderful characterisations of players are legendary. He once said of the Christian Califano’s pace, “This lad can do the 100m in 12 seconds. That’s sonic boom for a prop forward, I tell ye!” And the chuckle in his voice was evident as he described Simon Geogeoghan as being “all arms and legs like a mad octopus” and Doddie Weir “on the charge like a mad giraffe.” Of his ‘pearlers’, “They say down at Stradey that if ever you catch him [Phil Bennett] you get to make a wish” and “I'm no hod carrier, but I would be laying bricks if he [Jonah Lomu] was running at me” are some of the most memorable, but there are thousands of quotes from which to choose.
Bill’s love of rugby shone through every commentary he ever did and he never once force fed his own opinions on the viewer or listener. He never forgot that he was speaking to people who knew a lot about rugby as well as those who knew very little. He was able to cater for them all and even viewers with no particular interest in rugby would be captivated by his unique style at the microphone. It was as if Bill was speaking to ‘you at home’ rather than millions of simultaneous television viewers worldwide. Eddie Butler said in his obituary on Bill that “he was much more than rugby's voice; more its full-blown orchestra” William Pollock McLaren died on the 19th of January, 2010, and the next day, the ‘Scotsman’ reported: “Last night the flags at Murrayfield flew at half-mast.”