Bill McLaren – celebrating a local hero

billI never met Bill McLaren – but I always felt that I knew him.

Fellow rugby fans the world over will know exactly what I mean by this.

Anyone who has followed the game over the past 50 years or so and in particular the Five – now Six –  Nations Tournament – has grown up with Bill McLaren’s uniquely knowledgable, witty and hugely entertaining commentaries.

From behind a BBC microphone his avuncular style endeared him to people everywhere. His was and lives on as the voice of Rugby Union.

In his home town of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, everyone knew Bill; the local lad who worked on the Hawick Express, as a PE teacher and a rugby coach before starting on the road to becoming a sporting legend.

His first brush with broadcasting came as he was recovering from tuberculosis in an East Lothian hospital – commentating on table tennis matches for the hospital radio.

The illness put paid to his rugby playing days as a flank forward for Hawick and any ambitions he harboured to play for Scotland for whom he had had a trial in 1947. Ironically, it would be instrumental in bringing him more lasting fame in the rugby world than he could ever have imagined as a player.

Bill made his debut for BBC Radio in 1953 commentating on a 12-0 Scottish defeat at the hands of Wales. Over the next 49 years he was in a league of his own, turning up for internationals with his famous ‘big sheets’ of scribbled notes, fact and figures on players and the fixture.

During that time he was awarded the OBE, CBE and MBE for services to sport and became the first non-international inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.

And he had a smile as wide as Hawick High Street at his final commentary assignment, an international between Wales against Scotland that delivered a 22-27 scoreline.

Bill died in January 2010 at the age of 86 and on the day of his funeral Hawick came to a standstill as people paid tribute to ‘one of their ain.’

But his legacy lives on. The Bill McLaren Foundation was set up, with the support of his family, to serve three purposes :

To develop and promote the sport of rugby union and its values
To encourage and provide sporting opportunities for young people
To create an educative centre which will include the Bill McLaren Archive

Foundation director Ian Landles said: “Bill was an iconic figure, a role model who believed in sportsmanship and fair play. We are building up membership and raising money that help boys and girls with sporting scholarships and educational projects. His big sheets go for £1,000’s when auctioned at our dinners and special events, and he had one for every international he covered.

“We also want to set up a Bill McLaren museum of rugby and expect that to be a draw for people from all over the world.”

More information about the Bill McLaren Foundation at www.billmclarenfoundation.co.uk

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