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Hignell hangs up his mic

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Interview: Retiring commentator Alastair Hignell with John Inverdale

Alastair Hignell, BBC Radio 5 Live rugby union commentator, has retired following the Guinness Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester on Saturday.

Hignell, 52, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999 and is now an ardent campaigner for the raising of awareness of the illness.

Hignell worked for the BBC for 17 years and for 5 Live for 12 years, during which time he covered every major rugby union event, both domestic and international.

Hignell was also a stellar sportsman in his own right. The first Cambridge student to captain the university at both cricket and rugby union, he played professional cricket for Gloucestershire from 1974 to 1983, passing 1,000 runs for the season three times and hitting 11 first-class centuries.

He was a 19-year-old student when he made his England rugby union debut against Australia in Brisbane in 1975 - the "Battle of Ballymore" - and went on to win 14 caps as a full-back. He also played for Bristol for many years, somehow combining his sporting feats with his day job as a teacher.

It is a sign of the affection he is held in as a commentator that victorious Wasps skipper Lawrence Dallaglio dedicated his own final game on Saturday to Hignell.

"I've known Alastair for a long time," said Dallaglio. "Rugby is about courage and character, and Alastair has shown those qualities as a player and as a person. It is fitting that we should win and dedicate the victory to him. He is a very special man."

Here, Hignell gives his thoughts on his life as a commentator, as a top-class sportsman and on his battle with multiple sclerosis.

ALASTAIR HIGNELL ON HIS OWN SPORTING CAREER

"When I was playing, the rugby season wasn't allowed to start before the beginning of September and it wasn't allowed to go beyond 1 May, so the two games weren't allowed to overlap and they dovetailed pretty well. So it was very simple to fit both cricket and rugby in - fitting the studies in was the problem!

"As a youngster, someone gave you a challenge - 'we want you to play for this team' - and I said, 'why not?' I'm not sure I really appreciated it at the time, it's just something you did.

"I was at school, joined a club at 18 and then came to Cambridge, and before the end of the year I was playing rugby for England. It seemed a natural progression at the time.

"We were professional amateurs, with a very small 'p'. We took the game pretty seriously, but we took it seriously within the limits there were. We all had jobs - I was a student and then a school teacher. Rugby union was an amateur game.

"You finished work at 5-6 o'clock, did a couple of hours training on a Tuesday and a Thursday, played on a Saturday, and sometimes on a Sunday. So naturally we weren't as muscular, pumped up and we were perhaps more rounded in other respects than the modern rugby players are."

HIGNELL ON HIS LIFE AS A COMMENTATOR

"It's been a wonderful, wonderful career and I've been lucky enough to have had one of the best jobs in broadcasting. I first started commentating in 1985 and have made some great friends along the way and I'm grateful and thankful to the BBC for allowing me to sign off with a big game like the Premiership final.

"I'll take with me some wonderful memories - above all, the people involved in this best of all sports. As far as my commentaries go, three in particular stand out for me.

"From the beginning of my career, the 1991 World Cup semi-final, when David Campese worked his magic for Australia to beat New Zealand. From the middle, Jason Robinson and Brian O'Driscoll ripping Australia apart in the first Lions Test of 2001. And from the last World Cup, the astonishing fight-back by Fiji against South Africa in Marseille.

"But nothing will touch the occasion of the 2003 World Cup Final in Sydney. To be involved, as commentator at the beginning of each half and as post-match interviewer on the pitch, as England beat Australia that November night was very, very special indeed.

"The World Cup in France last autumn proved to me that I didn't have the resilience to bounce back as I could before. It was time to accept that it was limiting and preventing me from doing this wonderful job as it deserves to be done."

HIGNELL ON HIS BATTLE WITH MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS

"I was first diagnosed on 8 January 1999. The sun was shining, it was 1130 in the morning. I'd had a series of symptoms which the doctors had not been able to explain. My right hand was very, very shaky, my right leg kept tripping me up from time to time. I had pins and needles, numb sensations, headaches, bladder problems, all of which were tested individually and nothing was found to be wrong.

"But eventually they said, 'all those are symptoms of multiple sclerosis', and they sent me in for an MRI scan and that showed little scarrings on the brain and they were pretty certain it was multiple sclerosis. They put me in for further tests and stuck a great big needle into my back and came out with a diagnosis after that.

"It's an incurable disease and it's unpredictable disease and it's different for individuals. Some people have a very progressive form of the disease, a primary form of the disease; some people have what they call benign multiple sclerosis, where they get one attack and then it's a long time before the next.

"The one I've got is 'secondary-progressive', which means it is gradually getting worse. When I was first diagnosed I was able to run and train and I was determined to prove I could beat this disease and be bigger and better. I threw myself into physical activity and work activity and ended up very exhausted and very angry. I wasn't getting anywhere, the MS was getting worse.

"I now drive a scooter around most of the time. I can get around with a stick, but I can't drive a car any more. I'm very lucky to have a support worker through Access to Work, which is a government-funded scheme. My right arm doesn't work very well and my right leg doesn't work very well, so I use things like speech recognition on the computer and any aid that's available I will go out there and use.

"[My future] is a bit of an open book at the moment. I'd like to find one-off projects either within sport, within the media, within teaching or in another field altogether. Nothing at the moment is firmed up. I'm going to enjoy being an ex-commentator for a while, enjoy the summer, maybe watch a bit of cricket and see what comes up."


see also
Corry bemoans first-half failings
31 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Wasps 26-16 Leicester
31 May 08 |  Rugby Union
Guinness Premiership photos
31 May 08 |  Rugby Union


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