Wednesday, January 20, 2010

So. Farewell Then, Bill McLaren

Another voice of our childhoods has been silenced. Bill McLaren, voice of rugby on the BBC, has been called home at the age of eighty-six.

Bill McLaren was old school. He was from the village of Hawick, in Scotland’s rugby heartland. The name means nothing now in the professional age but back in the day the news that the Scots had found yet another raw-boned forward from Hawick was enough to cause the bruises to rise and the teeth to loosen on even the most hardened of men before a ball – or anything else – was kicked at all.

Scotland had a very particular way of playing rugby in the amateur era, a dour, grinding relentlessness that gave way to grudging admiration from vanquished opposition that they pulled it off so well. Sheep farmers’ rugby – a ten man game for strong, muscular men who needn’t have trained at all, having spent all their time on the mountain pulling sheep out of ditches in the freezing, sheeting rain of Scotland. No gym in the world hardens muscle on bone like that sort of work.

McLaren was a schoolteacher. You could tell, listening to him. He loved the great theatres of Twickers and the Parc des Princes of course, but you got the feeling, like a catch in his voice, that he’d be as happy on the back pitch of some school teaching a young lad the skills of the game, and being delighted when the young lad bound properly, or didn’t bash his head off the hooker in the scrums anymore. It was hard not to get the feeling that being true to the traditions and ethos of game meant as much to him as JPR crossing the line in the Arms Park, or Andy Irvine going over at Murrayfield.

McLaren’s great gift was his perspective. He knew that rugby wasn’t actually a matter of life and death, that it was just a game. The BBC did a documentary about him on his final season – his first assignment that year was Italy v Scotland in Rome. The last time McLaren has been in Italy was fifty years beforehand, when he was there as a Royal Artillery man during the Second World War.

When the war was over, he was on the verge of an international cap when he contracted TB. TB would have done for him were it not for a miracle drug called Streptomycin. After all that, it was easy enough to keep the Calcutta Cup in perspective. Crucial certainly, but by no means serious.

Bill McLaren was old school. That BBC documentary ended with him waltzing around the sitting room with his wife, an old-school courtly pleasured beloved by that most courtly of sports commentators. Bill McLaren was of a generation where men danced with women, didn’t sneer for the sake of sneering and looked on triumph and disaster, treating both imposters just the same. He will be missed, and his like will not be seen again. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam Albanach uasal.

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