19 January 2010
I first met Bill McLaren when I was about ten years old and he was refereeing a fiercely contested rugby match between Hawick Trinity and Parkside Primary School. I have a vague memory of being penalised for foul play in the first minute but he didn't hold it against me.
Bill was already a household name for his unique, couthy commentaries of international rugby matches on the BBC, but it was typical of the man that he was happy to give up his Saturday morning to encourage not just the grass roots of the game, but the tiniest seedlings. As a referee, his fairness was legendary and he carried it over into his commentating and his newspaper reporting. He loved Hawick and Scotland with a passion but he never once allowed it to show.
He always reckoned that a day out of Hawick was a day wasted. In the years before his death this morning he didn't waste many days.
When I started working for my local newspaper in Jedburgh we'd often share a freezing cramped press box at Poynder Park, Riverside or Mansfield, and he was unfailingly kind, offering advice, sharing insight and information and handing out Hawick Balls, the minty sweets from his home town which he was never without. I never heard him say a bad word about anyone and he could charm a quote from the most abrasive prop forward or the shyest scrum half.
He's probably unique in that he became a rugby icon without actually playing for his country and it was a lifelong regret that his opportunity to wear the dark blue of Scotland was curtailed by the bout of tuberculosis that nearly killed him in 1947. But Scottish rugby's loss was the rugby world's game because he took the same enthusiasm and knowledge of the game he showed as a player to become the best known voice on television for something like four decades, the true Voice of Rugby. His style was never anything but individual, the sonorous tones of his Borders roots allied to a talent for vivid, dramatic description and a turn of phrase that made him a legend.
Scrum halves were one of his favourite targets. Roy Laidlaw was forever lamenting the fact that while his half back partner John Rutherford was hailed as a free-running gazelle he was always a snarling Border terrier or a feisty Jack Russell.
Who can ever forget memorable descriptions such as:
He's like a demented ferret up a wee drainpipe
He kicked that ball like three pounds of haggis
They'll be dancing in the streets of (Merthyr/Kelso/Harrogate) tonight
He plays like a raging bull with a bad head
And of course, the one that became his catchphrase:
It's high enough, it's straight enough and it's long enough!
When he retired from the BBC in 2002 it was the end of an era. Many have tried but nobody has ever quite managed to fill his place at the microphone, how could they?
Bill the commentator was never less than brilliant, and his contribution has been recognised by the award of the MBE, OBE, and CBE but it is Bill McLaren, the true gentleman who never failed to share his sweeties that I'll always remember.