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Thursday, 24 January, 2002, 16:43 GMT
A reluctant legend
Bill McLaren
McLaren would rarely miss a training session
BBC Sport's Nigel Starmer-Smith pays tribute to legendary rugby commentator Bill McLaren who will retire at the end of this season's Six Nations Championship.

My first thoughts of Bill McLaren are of his distinctive voice and style. "Hello Nidge, how you doing?" is how he regularly greets me.

And of course those familiar phrases: "It's high enough, it's long enough, it's straight enough", "that's Bill Beaumont like a raging bull", or "they'll be dancing in the streets of Pontypool tonight."

He has always been an unobtrusive figure in his brown macintosh with a muffler or sheepskin coat, ever ready to dispense Hawick balls from the tin of mints he always carried.

He hates the limelight and seldom attends rugby functions or dinners.

He was the most diligent of men in his preparation
Nigel Starmer-Smith

I remember a special favour he did for me in attending the first ever Rugby World Awards which I organised in London.

He was a reluctant recipient of the Unsung Hero award for his contribution to rugby - received, of course, with a standing ovation.

We shared so many touchlines and commentary boxes, almost all over the world, during my 20 years on Rugby Special.

'Big sheets'

He is the most diligent of men in his preparation.

If humanly possible, he attends every team's training session prior to the matches.

And, like Peter O'Sullevan - who took painstaking care in painting on his sheets the colours of jockeys' silks - so Bill uses a pack of cards to repeatedly flick over and put name to number.

Thus: "One, Cotton; Two, Wheeler..." etc.

And then, of course, the "big sheets" that are placed in front of him at every match, a work of art in multi-coloured byros with detail that might well include what each player had for breakfast.

How proud he was when Scotland triumphed
Nigel Starmer-Smith

I can only recall one occasion when he missed a training session that he wished to attend, in a sign of changing times in rugby.

During the 1999 Rugby World Cup in Dublin, an uptight Australian team management refused to allow him even to look over a fence at the Wallaby players whose identity he wished to confirm in his mind.

It is fair to say a lot of the things that have changed in the game in the last decade Bill did not like.

And with good reason, as players became in human terms more distant from the media while the sport became a business and no longer a recreation for all shapes and sizes.

Without doubt, Bill's first love is his home in the beautiful Scottish borders at Hawick.

Bette, his wonderfully supportive wife, his children, his golf-playing and then rugby; that is his order of precedence.

To me he was like a generous uncle - never a hint of rivalry until we discussed forthcoming Calcutta Cup matches.

Calcutta Cup clashes were eagerly anticipated

How proud he was when Scotland triumphed. Never more so than when son-in-law Alan Lawson scored two tries which Bill must have described with a pounding heart.

Few realised, perhaps, that his real profession was a peripatetic school-teacher, going around local schools in the borders teaching games principally as well as Scottish country dancing.

He would revel in recalling the inadequacies of a young Colin Deans or Jim Renwick who benefitted from his rugby instruction in their early days.

In most recent years, our friendship became even closer as we both suffered the tragic deaths of our children.

For me, Bill is a special person. To the public, he has become a rugby friend as well as commentator.

I feel very privileged to have worked alongside him for so long.

See also:

24 Jan 02 |  Rugby Union
Bill McLaren: the voice of rugby union
24 Jan 02 |  Rugby Union
My favourite five
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