Sunday 18 March 2018

McLaren provided the soundtrack to so many lives

So farewell then, dear old Bill McLaren, voice of rugby, voice of Scotland, voice of childhood Saturdays for two generations.

Those who knew him were unanimous: he was a lovely man, an old-school gent, and a master of his trade.

Two trades, you could say, because while he was a part-time match commentator he was a fulltime teacher, by all accounts as beloved in the classroom as he was on the airwaves.

Ian McGeechan, one of the grandees of British rugby, said on Tuesday that McLaren "brought out an understanding of rugby that was an education in its own right."

Maybe people warmed to him in the same way that pupils warm to a teacher who inspires them with his love of the subject he is trying to impart. Everyone should have at least one such mentor whom they can remember fondly from their schooldays: an adult who showed them humour and kindness and enthusiasm.

McLaren took those qualities from the intimate confines of a classroom to the wide open space of broadcasting. His deep affection for rugby, and those who played it, glowed like a hot coal at the heart of his match commentaries. It warmed him, and his listeners in turn were warmed too.

Similarly with Micheal ó Muircheartaigh in this country -- the parallels between these two iconic commentators are striking. As with McLaren, the game came first for ó Muircheartaigh; they followed it, coached it, talked it and lived it long before anyone put a microphone in their hand -- and long afterwards too.

And they were there more or less at the dawn of a trade that has now become something of a media industry. ó Muircheartaigh's first commentary was in 1949. McLaren began on Scottish radio before becoming the BBC's radio commentator in 1953; he switched to television in 1962.

There was no hallowed formula or litany of do's and don'ts for them to follow. They could, almost literally, make it up as they went along. So they established their own original styles, complete with uncompromised regional accents and steeped in the colour of their own language and personalities.

And because they were so immersed in the community of their sport, their commentaries had the stamp of authenticity about them. Their listeners trusted them as one of their own; they were the people's commentators.

Modern commentators struggle for the same sort of credibility and popular appeal. The new generation has become homogenised, standardised and somewhat detached from the populace, especially on television. It's probably a societal thing: they are of their time, as McLaren and ó Muircheartaigh were of theirs.

You could say that the latter two were/are the last of the amateurs: there was no established industry practice for this line of work, no training courses and not enough money to enable them give up the day job.

But they were, in fact, absolute professionals in terms of their preparation, research and commitment to the work. For all their natural talent, they worked very hard to survive the hazards of live commentary. McLaren was famously methodical in the build-up to every game. Even the descriptive turns of phrase and flamboyant one-liners that delighted audiences over the years were minted well ahead of match-day.

In July 2001, Mayo played Westmeath in a championship qualifier at Hyde Park. The working reporters watched proceedings from a lorry lined up for the job. ó Muircheartaigh was commentating, I happened to be sitting beside him. It was a shock to witness at close quarters the effort he put into his performance -- the sheer physical effort it demanded. It wasn't just the larynx and lungs that seemed to be under pressure, it was his whole system. The game went to extra-time too.

McLaren quite palpably didn't spare himself either. They had that in common too: a generosity of spirit; giving themselves completely in the act of telling the story to their audience. It's a unique kind of calling but only a few commentators seem to possess that humanity which makes them as much a part of the folklore of sport as the heroes whose feats they describe. The rest, good professionals most of them, remain more or less peripheral players in the drama.

ó Muircheartaigh obviously loves what he does -- hence his extraordinary longevity. And there

are hundreds of thousands of GAA fans out there who are hoping he'll go on for, oh, at least another 20 years. Because let's face it, the prospect of finding his successor is too terrible to contemplate.

Bill McLaren did 50 years at the microphone. His last match was at Cardiff Arms Park in 2002. The crowd sang For He's a Jolly Good Fellow when it was over.

"His commentaries were one of the first things I remember from rugby as a schoolboy," said McGeechan. "He has probably been one of the most influential people in rugby over the past 50 years, bringing people to the game and putting it in people's homes."

Jim Renwick played 52 times for Scotland during the 1970s and early '80s. "Bill was my first coach," he said. "We stayed close, but he was a fair man and he had time for everyone, not just the good players. Even the players who weren't so good loved being taught by Bill."

They are all sad, not just because he's gone but because a part of their own lives has gone with him too.

Sunday Independent

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