‘The voice of rugby’ was a long way from be­ing a rug­ger bug­ger

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - SPORT - PETER BILLS

THEY rushed to em­brace his mem­ory this week, laud him from all cor­ners of the globe for be­ing what was known as “the voice of rugby”.

Truth to tell, Bill McLaren, who died on Tues­day aged 86, was as far from the im­age of a ‘rug­ger bug­ger’ as you could ever find.

The idea of stand­ing propped up against a bar sink­ing pints of beer with your mates un­til you fell over, the true mien of so many rugby men, was anath­ema to McLaren.

He shunned many of rugby’s ways, re­fus­ing to al­low the hype and hap­pen­ings of the game to en­gulf him.

Two sem­i­nal mo­ments shaped Bill McLaren’s life and fash­ioned his think­ing there­after.

In the lat­ter stages of World War II, as Sec­ond Lieu­tenant 281771, Royal Ar­tillery, McLaren found him­self scram­bling up a hill­side be­neath the in­tim­i­dat­ing mil­i­tary tar­get of Monte Cassino, on the Ital­ian penin­sula.

As a for­ward ob­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer, he was an ob­vi­ous tar­get.

One night, he was re­lieved from his du­ties by a col­league and started to make his way back down the moun­tain, seem­ingly safe in the dark­ness.

But a Ger­man sniper had spot­ted his move­ment. The bul­lets zipped into the ground barely a me­tre away from him, McLaren hear­ing their ‘zing, zing’ as they just missed him.

Later, when Cassino had been taken, McLaren went through one of the Ital­ian vil­lages and found rot­ting Ger­man bodies, and Ital­ian civil­ians, ly­ing stacked up in the open. The stench was as grim as the sight, and the mem­ory never left him.

Life was al­ways so much more se­ri­ous for him there­after.

The other defin­ing mo­ment of his life came af­ter the war.

Court­ing his wife-to-be, Bette, he used to walk her home and then run from her house on one side of Haw­ick, the lit­tle town where he grew up and al­ways lived in the Scot­tish bor­ders, to his own lodg­ings.

Grad­u­ally, he re­alised he was los­ing fit­ness and kept hav­ing to stop. Soon, he was to be di­ag­nosed with tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, still a killer in those days.

McLaren was con­fined to an iso­la­tion hospi­tal full of men, most of whom were to die from the dis­ease. One day, his Ger­man doc­tor all but con­firmed McLaren’s in­evitable demise.

Yet there then emerged a new drug, un­tried, but one pos­si­bly of­fer­ing hope.

Be­liev­ing he had noth­ing what­ever to lose, McLaren agreed to take it. It was to be in­stru­men­tal in sav­ing his life.

Yet there was an­other fac­tor in his even­tual re­cov­ery which McLaren never for­got.

The care, de­vo­tion and love of his girl­friend, Bette, helped pull him through.

“Without her,” he said one day, ”I would have gone un­der. No mis­take about that.”

The ex­pe­ri­ence de­fined his life. He be­came a fa­mous BBC com­men­ta­tor on rugby union yet he scorned so many of the sport’s ways and tra­di­tions.

McLaren re­fused just about ev­ery in­vi­ta­tion to the post­match ban­quets that al­ways took place in the game’s am­a­teur era – es­pe­cially af­ter Five Na­tions cham­pi­onship matches.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to mix with those there; rather, he had a rock-like prin­ci­ple that not even his beloved work would keep him away from Bette and his much loved home for a sin­gle night.

Thus, it was part of his BBC con­tract that a car would be wait­ing at the back of the grounds – Lans­downe Road, Twick­en­ham, Cardiff Arms Park and even Paris in the great old days of the am­a­teur game – ready to speed him to an air­port for a flight home.

By 10pm most Satur­day nights of the in­ter na­tional pe­riod, Bill McLaren would be hav­ing his sup­per, not in the com­pany of the game’s great and good, but with Bette, be­side the fire at home. It was where he was hap­pi­est.

His de­vo­tion to her meant that cov­er­ing Lions rugby tours was an im­pos­si­bil­ity.

In 1983, for ex­am­ple, I cov­ered the Lions tour to New Zealand.

It lasted 13 weeks in all and I once re­counted some of the sto­ries to McLaren, as we worked to­gether on his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. He shook his head, grimly.

“Aye, that’d not be for me, lad­die” he con­fessed. “Here’s where I’d be want­ing to spend my 13 weeks, not all that way away, far from home. Ah don’t noo how yer did it.”

The death of their younger daugh­ter, Janie, from can­cer in April 2000, hit him hard.

An in­tensely sen­si­tive man and a true gen­tle­man, it was painful ex­tract­ing from him his in­ner most feel­ings of that time.

The an­guish re­mained with him for the rest of his life.

As we talked, a record, one of Janie’s favourites, be­gan to play on the ra­dio in their kitchen. Bill heard it and tears welled up in his eyes, like a brook threat­en­ing to burst its banks.

His suc­cess in a pro­fes­sional sense al­ways be­mused him.

“And tae think some fel­low was pay­ing me,” he’d say about his days com­men­tat­ing at the great rugby grounds of Bri­tain, Ire­land and France.

“I just hope the wee fel­low never gets to hear it, but I’d have done it all for noth­ing”.

And that warm, in­fec­tious smile was back on his face.


KING OF COM­MEN­TA­TORS: Bill McLaren com­men­tated on his last in­ter­na­tional – be­tween Scot­land and France – in March 2002. He was pre­sented with a plaque by the Scot­land coach Ian McGeechan (left) and Scot­land cap­tain Bryan Red­path.

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