The Scotland international center Jim Renwick once said after a narrow Scottish defeat by Ireland: “We’d have played much better had Bill McLaren been commentating.”
Call that Bill’s commentary-box superpower, perhaps.
Twenty-years ago this term, one of sport’s best-loved commentators worked on his final Test match, a Six Nations assignment between Wales and Scotland in Cardiff. Really, it was a woeful game to send him off with, literate with handling errors, poor decisions, ill-directed kicks and slapdash play.
The visitors prevailed, allowing the man from Hawick to deliver a final sentence that he presumably would have enjoyed: “Scotland the winners, 27 points to 22.”
The crowd sang ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ in his honor and a banner in the crowd proclaimed ‘Bill McLaren’s a Welshman’.
Announcing his retirement months earlier, he had said: “My last international match will be Wales against Scotland in Cardiff. That is very fitting because I have always received a great welcome from the people in Wales and I’ve loved commenting on their matches.
“I’d say the period from 1969 to 1979, when Wales played magnificent rugby, will probably be my favorite era. I’ve lots of memories and it will be sad to be no longer involved, but I think I’m ready to be packed off to do the dishes.”
And so off he went to the kitchen sink, leaving behind memories aplenty.
As with David Coleman, another great BBC institution, McLaren was a commentator who made the matches he was covering infinitely more enjoyable for viewers. His voice seemed to chime with the game and his phrases lit up even the gloomiest winter day.
Were they all off the cuff or were some of them of the Blue Peter one-I-prepared earlier school? It didn’t matter. They were so colorful and apt that pretty much everyone enjoyed them.
All of us will have our own versions of sporting heaven. A personal favorite for this writer is sipping a pint of cider while watching Viv Richards and Matthew Maynard bat for Glamorgan at St Helen’s in the early 1990s, amid cloudless blue skies over Swansea Bay.
But viewing a fast-flowing Wales-Scotland match on TV with McLaren commentating in the 1970s is right up there, too.
Without him, the experience wouldn’t have been the same.
His great modesty was endearing, too.
He argued long and hard against being awarded an honorary Scottish rugby cap, believing such a move would demean it by giving it to a mere TV commentator. Such lack of ego isn’t altogether commonplace in sport and in modern-day sport and broadcasting in particular.
But maybe McLaren was one of a kind, a man who brought joy to generations over 50 years without thinking too much of himself.
When he finished two decades ago, rugby lost his greatest voice.
It’s no insult to those who’ve followed to say his commentary-box stint remains the gold standard for the sport.
Here’s a selection of some of his most memorable lines..
We Phil Bennett : “They say down at Stradey that if ever you catch him you get to make a wish.”
We Gerald Davies : “His sidestep was marvelous – like a shaft of lightning.”
ace Scott and Craig Quinnell waited to join the fray on the touchline: “There’s the Quinnell brothers, two well-nourished individuals”
We Scott Gibbs: “When he hits you, you think the roof has just fallen in.”
We Jonah Lomu: “It’s like trying to tackle a snooker table!”
On Scotland’s towering Doddie Weir running with the ball, “like a run-away giraffe.”
On Ireland wing Simon Geoghegan : “He’s like Bambi on speed.”
On New Zealand wide-man Grant Batty : “He plays like a runaway bullet.”
“Now I’m not a hod man, but if I saw Jonah Lomu running at me, I’d be putting down bricks, I’ll tell you.”
“ Wade Dooley the big Blackpool policeman standing like a lighthouse at the back of the lineout.”
“I look at Colin Meads and see a great big sheep farmer who carried the ball in his hands as though it was an orange pip.”
Referring to one of the French front row as “having a face like a carpenter’s bag o’ chisels”
We jonathan davies and Robert Jones playing for Wales against Scotland in 1988: “You’ll notice Davies is standing very deep and that’s because Jones can pass off either hand, just watch this: ‘Whooosh!!’
On the England prop Fran Cotton: “Had the build of a water buffalo.”
On missing a kick: “That one was a bit inebriated – just like one of my golf shots.”
Describing the weakness of Scotland flanker Finlay Calder : “He’s got hands like dinner plates.”
On French forward, Cristian Califano, ‘built like a bicycle shed’
And, finally, on his lifetime base in the Scottish Borders: “A day out of Hawick is a day wasted.”