'Voice of rugby' McLaren dead at 86

Legendary rugby union television commentator Bill McLaren has died at the age of 86, the BBC announced on January 19.

The BBC said McLaren had died at 10.30am GMT on Tuesday in the community hospital in his hometown of Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

McLaren became known as the “voice of rugby” to generations of British fans during a career spanning nearly 50 years.

He retired in 2002, having first broadcast on BBC radio in 1953 when still a reporter on the Hawick Express newspaper.

Such was the global standing of the BBC during his career that McLaren’s voice also became well-known to rugby followers around the world.

Renowned for his distinctive voice and impartiality, McLaren combined his work as a broadcaster with that of a physical education teacher up until 1987 and coached the likes of future Scotland internationals Jim Renwick, Colin Deans and Tony Stanger.

McLaren, born in 1923, was a good enough player to be selected for Hawick, then one of Scotland’s leading clubs, before World War II.

After war service in the British Army, he played in a Scotland trial in 1947 and was close to a full international cap as a flanker when he contracted tuberculosis, a disease that 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,” McLaren said in 2001. “Three of the others died but I made what amounted to a miracle recovery.”

McLaren was meticulous in his preparation for every match he broadcast, listing every conceivable detail of interest about players and officials on a giant piece of foolscap paper—his “big sheet”—which he would lay out in front of his microphone.

He was already planning his future career while a young child.

“I’ve still got the fictional reports I used to write when I was a wee boy of seven or eight,” he once said. “Scotland always won.
They beat the world once by 70-3.”

Former Scotland captain Gavin Hastings, who broadcast alongside McLaren, said: “Bill was a very proud and passionate Scot, but such was his professionalism that you would never really have known that.

“He always remained very unbiased in his commentary and I think that was unquestionably one of his endearing qualities. He was just such a gentleman as well.”

Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, added: “The world of sport and broadcasting has lost a true legend with the passing of Bill McLaren.

“He thoroughly deserved the title ‘voice of rugby’ and was a fantastic ambassador for Scotland and his native Hawick right around the world. His contribution to the sport of rugby cannot be overstated.”

Such was the esteem in which McLaren—whose speciality after someone scored a try or match-winning penalty was to say, “They will be dancing in the streets of [the player’s hometown] tonight”—was held, in 2001 he became the first man who hadn’t played a Test to be inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.

McLaren received several national honours for his work, including a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

A CBE is one rank below a knighthood and last year McLaren was the subject of an internet campaign calling for him to be knighted.

His son-in-law, Alan Lawson, played for Scotland and two of McLaren’s grandchildren, Gloucester and Scotland scrum-half Rory Lawson and Edinburgh back Jim Thompson, are current professional players.—AFP

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