Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
31 December 2014
In conservative New Zealand of the 1950s the media was vastly different to what it was these days. For a start there was no television at all in New Zealand, radio was careful and conformist (being totally Government owned), the newspapers rarely gave by-lines to writers. It goes without saying that unacceptable or bad language across any of the radio communications industry was totally unheard of. But one afternoon on National Radio an All Black grabbed the microphone and let rip with what was then a total shocker!
Let us not ever say that bad language did not exist in everyday usage back in radio's early years. It did. For instance, men returning home from the rigors of their World War II experiences spoke in very 'sharp' terms about what had happened to them whilst in battle. But there are very few recordings of swearing that ever appeared during the 1950s on radio in New Zealand. It just wasn’t done.
There was one very famous instance though. And, perhaps surprisingly, given the conservative age of the time, when a dreaded word was dropped the whole country rocked with laughter. Hearing the same word today would hardly raise an eyebrow. And the ‘dreaded B-word’ of 1956 is much milder than many that are heard today. Nonetheless it was outrageous in its own way.
The occasion concerned the end of New Zealand’s most dramatic rugby test series to that point. The Springboks of South Africa, under captain Basie Viviers and Manager/coach Danie Craven had just completed the fourth test of a three month 23 match New Zealand tour.
To say the tests were epic contests is an understatement. Even today men of a certain age in New Zealand hark back to their vivid memories of those games with a sharpness of recall that is amazing. In the country still there must be thousands of scrapbooks lying in lofts and studies, kept by young kids at the time and never wanted to be thrown out.
The fourth test was a true pinnacle of the robust action of the weeks before. New Zealand had won the first and third tests, South Africa had won the second. All of the games had been close. So all of New Zealand tuned in to hear Winston McCarthy’s famous radio commentary on fourth test day, with the nation hoping, and probably praying, for a New Zealand win. Then and only then could the All Blacks say for the first time ‘we have won a test series over South Africa.’
Such an accomplishment had never been done before.
The test at Eden Park unfolded and the country hung on McCarthy’s every word, assisted in the broadcast box by the local Auckland commentator Colin Snedden. Slowly but surely the minutes ticked by and New Zealand’s team, captained by Bob Duff, edged out to an 11-5 lead. This was sufficient for the nation to think ‘they have to score twice to get the lead’ as a converted try was worth only five points in those days.
At one point the action became so fierce and Tiny White the New Zealand lock forward was kicked on the ground two policemen came down to the touchline and stood close by in case they might be needed to separate the players from breaking into outright affray.
Soon though, the whistle went for fulltime and the game had gone New Zealand’s way by that six point margin of 11-5. Could it be said that the result of the game and the tests series win over our fiercest rivals was a glorious day for New Zealand nationhood?
Maybe it was as rugby was definitely ‘King’ in those days.
People flooded onto the fields of Eden from all quarters and they rushed to a centre spot on the halfway line and looked up into the grandstand. There was no trophy to present but it had become traditional for each ground to farewell the South African team.
This writer can clearly recall from home listening on the radio as the crowd started chanting for the New Zealand players to come forward and take a cheer. There were two particular heroes – Don Clarke, the young Waikato fullback who was known far and wide as ‘The Boot’ – and a shy, fisherman from one of the farthest north places you can get to in New Zealand – Awanui, just by the famous 90 Mile stretch of beach. During the game Jones had brushed aside Springboks after chasing a bouncing ball and had scored a miracle try; Clarke had kicked the rest of New Zealand’s points, with a conversion and two penalty goals.
The chants continued after short speeches by New Zealand rugby officials and Danie Craven had made his famous, and very generous remark ‘New Zealand, it’s all yours.’ To which the crowd gave another almighty roar of approval.
Then Peter Jones was pushed forward to the microphone and the crowd suddenly hushed quiet to hear what he had to say. With Colin Snedden adjusting the microphone Jones leaned forward to speak. With sweat on his brow (or were they tears?) he said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope I never have to play another game like that in my life, I’m absolutely buggered!’
The words echoed around the ground to a massive shout of astonishment which within seconds changed to unforgettable delight. The noise was so calamitous that young Don Clarke's simple ‘thank you’ could hardly be heard.
The laughing and cheering for Peter Jones’ remark went on and on. To be fair what his words said also summed up what the relieved nation believed as well. With the test series having been clinched 3-1 indeed the whole country was ‘vastly relieved’ except Jonesy said it better.
However behind Newspaper’s editors desks and at broadcasting headquarters there was not such total approval. The late, great rugby writer Sir Terry McLean told me his New Zealand Herald decided not to publish at all the ‘offending’ remark by Jones. And the Saturday night edition of Auckland’s The 8 O’Clockonly ran reference to the story by describing the offending word as ‘b--------‘. And at the radio studio Headquarters of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service the phones ran hot as the bosses called in to say the remark by Jones must not be played again on the radio.
The sentence was deemed too distasteful for the audience’s ears. The tape was not replayed until Peter Sellers, the sports radio historian from Dunedin (who is still alive aged 93 as 2015 arrives), sought and was given approval for the remark to be played in a summary of Radio New Zealand Sports highlights nearly 30 years later!
But let's go back to the time. In 1956 you shouldn’t really have said that word in polite company. But it was so outrageously correct and at the time it perfectly summed up the nation’s mood. The All Blacks had won their tests against their grimmest rivals and 'we', players and listeners alike, were exhausted by the build-up of the whole three months.
It is true to say the country was ‘absolutely buggered!’ and we had Peter Jones to thank for saying it for us.
[If you click on 'Favourite Photos' on the front page of this webstie you will see an attached newspaper clipping from The 8 O'Clock's edition in Auckland from the night after the game in September 1956. The picture was autographed (complete with the famous B-word) by Peter Jones himself many years later. The original signature was done in blue ball-point pen and has only been corrected for reprinting here. This writer believes the original is priceless in rugby terms!]
And there's a many a Kiwi who has rung him on this day in the years since - after he grew to be one of our greatest All Blacks.
The famous Scottish rugby commentator, a man who set standards in the art of television commentary which, in the end, gained him worldwide acclaim.
Raised in the Scottish border town of Hawick, where he was a teacher all his working life, young McLaren was a good enough player to earn himself a Scottish trial in the years immediately after his service in World War II. However illness struck him down and during a lengthy stay in hospital he began broadcasting over the hospital radio system.
On his discharge and unable to play anymore he took to rugby commentary. From his beloved Mansfield Park in Hawick he started on a career at the microphone that was to last more than 50 years. His first international call was on radio for a Scottish Districts game v South Africa while during the 1951-52 tour.
His reputation grew quickly and by 1953-54 he was commentating Scottish test matches from Murrayfield. He recalls how that same winter the BBC sent him to Cardiff to observe the great New Zealand radio man Winston McCarthy in action. Bill tells the story of being amazed at how excited McCarthy got during a game. ‘At one stage he nearly fell forward out of the commentary box. I had to hold his coat to keep him in the box!’
The big change for McLaren came in 1959 when, though continuing to be a shcoolmaster, he changed to working part-time for BBC television. For the first time TV commentary of rugby was turned into the unique form it is today. No more endless verbiage as required in radio description, instead an attention came to identification of players by face and number; there was explanations given of refereeing decisions; plus identification of the placement of the game on the field. And most uniquely to McLaren, entertaining background and statistical information about the personalities in the game. The man himself filled large sheets of background notes on every player taking part in every fixture he worked on. The ‘sheets’ became sought after souvenirs and sometimes were auctioned for charity at rugby dinners.
McLaren lived by his attention to preparation; he often told budding broadcasters ‘the secret of good broadcasting is never to neglect your homework.’
He did all his work to perfection and became a huge personality in the game. It was all done with a gentle Scottish accent and cheerful attitude to life which was admired with affection all over the world. His influence over all things was perhaps summed up by one Scottish player, lamenting a narrow loss one time in the Five Nations Championship. Said the player, ‘aye, we’d have played much better if Bill McLaren had been commentatin’.’
Bill continued at the microphone until he was close to 80 years of age. He retired from BBC TV in 2002 after exactly 50 years of international broadcasting. The reaction to his departure was amazing, with much media coverage in press, radio and TV and, of course from his many fans around the world who had learned much more about rugby because of his lifetime’s commitment to it.
In which town or city was the first international rugby match played in Wales?