On This Day...Farewell match for the voice of Rugby
On this day 18 years ago (6 April 2002), the Voice of Rugby, Bill McLaren, conducted his final international rugby commentary.
Fifty years on from his first BBC international rugby commentary, McLaren chose to bow out at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, where Scotland were concluding the 2002 Six Nations Championship against Wales.
Scotland’s record in the Championship that year going into the fixture had seen them post just the one victory – against Italy in Rome. Wales, likewise, only had a win against the Azzurri to their credit.
Fittingly, Scotland marked Bill’s departure with a victory. It was a rare feat in Cardiff. Before the Millennium Stadium had been constructed, Scotland only won nine times in Cardiff in 100 years (albeit international matches were staged elsewhere in Wales too).
And since that 27-22 success in 2002, Scotland lost their next ten subsequent visits to the Welsh capital, where sponsorship now decrees Wales’ home ground is the Principality Stadium.
The 2020 Six Nations game against Wales was played at Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli, later in 2020 (the match at the Principality Stadium having been postponed because of the pandemic) and Scotland ended their sequence of losses in Wales with a 14-10 victory, courtesy of a Stuart McInally try and penalties from Finn Russell, Adam Hastings and Stuart Hogg.
The 2002-win saw Scotland hooker Gordon Bulloch garner a first-half try brace, which reflected the dominance enjoyed by the visitors’ pack. Brendan Laney’s boot, which had helped Scotland to a 15-9 half-time lead, was required to find the target thrice more in the second-half and a late strike from Duncan Hodge saw Scotland hold on for the 27-22 margin.
At the end of the game Bill came down to the Scotland changing room to thank the players for such a finale.
Scotland head coach Ian McGeechan turned to two Borderers in Scotland ranks, Chris Paterson and Gregor Townsend, and the Gala pair presented Hawick’s finest with a signed Scotland jersey.
But to learn more about Bill’s international swansong – his commentary at the Melrose Sevens later that month was his final domestic gig – his daughter, Linda Lawson, takes up the story.
“Mum, my daughter Lindsay and I had gone down to Cardiff with dad. On the morning of the game, we’d decided to go out for a walk and left dad doing his final commentary preparation in the Angel Hotel in Cardiff.
“There had been a photo of mum (Bette) in the local paper and this lady, a tour guide, whose family ran tour buses in Cardiff, recognised her. She leapt off her bus and caught up with us on our walk.
“She told us how much Bill meant to her and said she would love to meet him. Well, I knew dad was doing his prep, but we took her up to his room in the hotel and he was a typical gentleman as he chatted to her. She almost floated out of the room.”
Linda, Bette and Lindsay were guests of the BBC at the game and met now Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson in a BBC box at the stadium.
“There was a banner which read ‘Bill McLaren is a Welshman’. Dad was in the commentary position getting ready for the game when the crowd started singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. Jonathan Davies, who was his co-commentator, nudged dad when they started singing.
“He looked up and you could see he was a wee bit bemused at first, but he broke into a smile and gave a little modest wave.
“I remember Lindsay, mum, Tanni Grey-Thompson and I . . . all four of us were in tears.”
After Bill had finished at the stadium, he had arranged to meet his family and walk back the short distance to the Angel Hotel.
“We started walking back but we couldn’t get anywhere because there were so many of the crowd that had lingered behind to try to catch a glimpse of dad and meet him.
“People were asking for autographs and a handshake. In the end we reluctantly called a BBC car in order to get back to the hotel and it drove us the few 100 yards.
“Otherwise we would have been there until midnight!
“It brought home to dad how much people respected him and loved him for what he did.”
Hard to believe, but Bill McLaren was 78 when he retired. He didn’t really sound any different from how he had set the highest standard for rugby commentary for the previous decades.
Linda reflected: “He had decided before that season had begun that he was not retaining the details to the same extent. He was a bit of a perfectionist and felt there was a time coming when he would not (be able to) commentate the way he wanted to do. I think it was the right time for him to call it a day.”
Sadly, Bill passed away in 2010 but any dip into the BBC archives sees pulses quicken as his distinctive Border tones, knowledge and enthusiasm brings umpteen games alive.
“We are so proud of everything that dad did and the fact we can still hear him now and again, if it’s a little snippet on Question of Sport or when they look back to previous internationals in the build-up to games,” Linda added.
Since Bill’s death, the charity that carries his name and his ethos, the Bill McLaren Foundation, has reinvested some £1.1million into grassroots sport, primarily rugby clubs in Scotland.
Today, more than ever, we salute Bill McLaren and the many wonderful commentaries that he gave, kindling the love of rugby for so many.