“Simon Geoghegan, he’s all arms and legs this fella, like an octopus.”
No one has since found a more accurate description of the Irish winger.
The truest testament of any commentator in their chosen sport is when their vocal talents are known, remarked upon and moreover celebrated by people whose interest in the sport is at best passing. Bill McLaren, who has sadly just died at 86, was one such man.
There is no doubt in my mind that my ambition to become a sports commentator comes directly from my days growing up listening to ‘the voice of rugby’. Just as Murray Walker will always be synonymous with F1, Dan Maskell was to Wimbledon and Peter O’Sullevan was to horse racing, watching rugby to the sound of Bill McLaren was the only way it should be.
I recall a behind-the-scenes item that Grandstand featured one Saturday during the old Five Nations. They followed a ‘Day In The Life’ of Bill as he began his journey from his home town of Hawick in Scotland, to Murrayfield for another dramatic Calcutta Cup match.
In preparation at home, he had in front of him a handwritten graph, bigger than a 1000 piece jigsaw, with almost as many separate parts. Name, position, club, caps, tries scored, wife, children, the list of detail was endless. It ensured that at any given moment during the game, Bill was well prepared to drip feed extra information through, so as to give the viewer a fuller picture of the team and its players.
A further strength of Bill’s, and this is perhaps why he attracted wider appeal, was his ability to make the sport feel inclusive to all. Have you ever tried explaining the game to a novice in the pub? Bill was adept at explaining what to look out for and the turns of skill to enjoy. Even if you were unclear of the rules, Bill would made sure you had something to appreciate. In doing so, he was also able to allow his natural Scottish brogue to roam freely amongst a myriad of phrases that have become legendary to this day.
“Up here the ball flies like an artillery shell.” On commentating at altitude.
“There’ll be dancing in the streets of Edinburgh/Hawick/Selkirk tonight!”
“That one was a bit inebriated – just like one of my golf shots.” A description of a missed goal kick.
I am thankful to Bill McLaren for all the years of making a dull game bearable, an average game great, and a great game greater. To have lived through an era where he had the mic was a privilege indeed. Rest in peace Bill.
By Nick Heath