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McLaren's gift was to make us all part of rugby's in-crowd

Bill McLaren, one of the last of sport's great tribe of apostles, died on Tuesday. McLaren was the BBC's voice of rugby, just as Dan Maskell was the voice of tennis, Peter O'Sullevan of racing, John Arlott of cricket, Murray Walker of motor racing, Harry Carpenter of boxing, David Coleman of athletics. Most have left us, some have just retired.

They won't be dancing in the streets of his native Hawick at the news that McLaren has died at 86 (he was inclined to prophesy an outbreak of nocturnal dancing after most of the victories he covered for the BBC), but his was a life that demands some kind of celebration.

He was first a rugby commentator; by his last match in 2002, all but 50 years later, he was a living national treasure across the water, OBE, CBE and MBE to boot.

Back in the far-off days when the BBC covered every sport and every major sporting event as a matter of right, each sport acquired its identity by means of a single voice. McLaren gave rugby union to generations, and it was a gift of love.

The main reason for his success was not his professionalism and his research, though he was exemplary in both matters. We should, very properly, take such things for granted. It's what else you can bring that makes you exceptional. And McLaren brought love: and, more importantly, was able to communicate that love.

The great secret of McLaren was not that he knew who everybody was and what they were about on a rugby field. Nor was it his tricks of speech and his neat turns of phrase, agreeable as they often were. The point of McLaren was that he was absolutely potty about rugby: and this mad love was something he loved to share.

When the apostles first began broadcasting on television in the 1950s, watching sport was a niche activity, restricted to those who could be troubled to go to a stadium and pay their admission money.

Watching sport wasn't something most people were used to. It was the apostles' job to show us how to do it: initiate us into the secrets: tell us -- or better still, show us -- how to enjoy it.

McLaren did all these things, and he did it in a sport that has always prided itself on its clubability, on its comparative exclusivity. McLaren made us all part of the in-crowd. He let us into the hidden stuff of personalities, he revealed the dramas, and his enjoyment became our own. The public had to learn rugby: McLaren was our teacher.

McLaren was born in 1923 and played rugby as a flank forward. He was good too: he had trials for Scotland, but then got TB. He became a PE teacher, and also worked on the Hawick Express. He got his chance to cover rugby for BBC radio in 1953, and in 1959 switched to the telly.

And so, eventually, he became an institution. McLaren made rugby everybody's game. He gave his own sport its voice, its identity, and with it, its humanity.

CLASSIC QUOTES FROM THE Voice of Rugby . . .

"It's high enough, it's long enough, it's straight enough"

"He's like a demented ferret up a wee drainpipe"

"He plays like a runaway bullet"

"There goes 18 stones of prime Scottish/Welsh/Irish/English beef on the hoof"

"And they'll be dancing in the streets of [insert winning team] tonight, I can tell you"

"He kicked that ball like it were three pounds o' haggis"

"His sidestep was marvellous --like a shaft of lightning" (of Gerald Davies, the Wales wing)

"When he hits you, you think the roof's just fallen in" (of Scott Gibbs, the Wales centre)

"He's as quick as a trout up a burn"

"He's all arms and legs, like a mad octopus"

"And it's a try by Hika the hooker from Ngongotaha" (Wales v New Zealand 1980)

"I'm no hod carrier but I'd be laying bricks if he was running at me" (of Jonah Lomu, the All Black wing)