Thursday, 21 January 2010

It was with heavy hearts rugby fans around the world mourned the passing earlier in the week of the great Bill McLaren – the voice of rugby.

I’d like to share my McLaren memories.

Like a lot of kids growing up in rural Southland in the 1960s there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do on a Sunday other than go to church, work on the farm or begrudgingly partake in the dreaded Sunday drive to visit relations.

Thankfully though, there was occasionally Sunday afternoon respite in the form of a new invention called television. Admittedly the reception wasn’t flash and the pictures were in black and white but this magical new medium was able to beam pictures from the other side of the world into our living room in Riversdale.

And that’s when I fell in love with the voice of Bill McLaren. Grainy old images of England playing Scotland at Murrayfield and the delightfully charming Scottish brogue of McLaren’s commentary. It didn’t matter that matches were three weeks old, because in those days live broadcasts of international rugby were still five years away.

From my childhood until his final commentary in 2002 (Wales v Scotland where the crowd sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and one Welsh supporter displayed a banner claiming “Bill McLaren is Welsh”) he was the one constant in a game that constantly changed.

Keith Quinn is the closest we’ve come to McLaren’s legend, but even Quinn pales in longevity and achievement to McLaren’s 50 year broadcasting career (he incidentally also covered Scotland and Wales in his 1953 national debut on BBC Radio). For Quinn, criticism was a constant companion, whereas I’ve never heard or read anything derogatory of McLaren.

In more recent years I had the great honour of getting to know McLaren a bit, albeit from a distance of 19,000 kilometres. He was a regular guest on the Hokonui Gold Sunday Sports Show and we repaid the favour by posting him the monthly edition of the New Zealand Rugby World magazine, which he readily devoured.

In 2003 when I was in Scotland on a farming tour, McLaren and his lovely wife Bette, whom I always respectfully called Mrs McLaren over the phone, generously invited me to their home in Hawick on the Scottish borders. That I never took up the opportunity is one of my great regrets.


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