Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
26 October 2014
When I was a skinny kid growing up in the King Country the national radio rugby commentator Winston McCarthy was as well known in our country as the All Blacks themselves or other newsworthy personalities like the Prime Minister, the Governor-General or Olympic athletes. Winston became my broadcast hero...
In the 1950s there was no TV and all our news came from a large ‘wireless’ radio in the corner of the living room. My Dad was a bit of a hard case and at dinner he’d tell stories about mythical places in funny voices. One of his voices impersonated the radio rugby commentator we used to listen to, Winston ‘Scotty’ McCarthy.
I remember many a dull match was made exciting by the way Winston “talked it up.” He was the first commentator to use crowd noise as part of his excitement. When a kick for goal was being taken from the other side of the field and he was unable to see the ball’s path flight he would say, “the crowd noise will tell us (if the kick is going to go over) …so LISTEN!!!…it’s a goal!!” It became his trademark call.
From the King Country we shifted to Wellington and lived near Athletic Park. Like every kid we used to go free to the club rugby every winter Saturday. Watching the games we soon recognised Winston McCarthy was the voice we’d also hear on the public address. He would give out the team changes and the scorers. He was even so famous no one complained when he would sometimes call out to the match referee on the PA. ‘Sir, Sir! There’s an injury back at halfway, Sir!’ Imagine a commentator doing that today!
The Kiwi Army tour of 1945-46 started the game in Britain after the horrors of World War II. Winston was there for the NZBC. His style of raised-voice, excitable sports commentary, was completely the opposite to the dignified old school tie style of the BBC. When British radio audiences heard Winston they soon asked the BBC for his commentaries rather than from their own chaps. In 1953, when television was in its infancy the telecast of the All Blacks game at Twickenham was interrupted so that the TV commentator could cross over for a while to a take a ten-minute burst of what Winston was saying on BBC radio!
In Wellington I used to be fascinated watching Winston in his commentary box. I even used to wait behind until he had recorded his post match summary. I remember the thrill of whistling and crying out and then running home to hear myself behind’s Winston’s voice on the local radio replay. That didn’t last long however as the following week he told tell my mates and me to ‘piss off!’ before his next recording.
They reckoned at his peak Winston could influence a player into the All Black selector’s thinking. Winston had favourites all right. Ron Jarden, the lightening quick Wellington winger was one, Johnny Smith, the sleepy looking Maori centre from the far north was another. Also Peter Jones, the fiery flanker from up there too. And not to forget Fred Allen and Bob Scott from the Kiwi Army team too. Those blokes could do no wrong.
I suppose you could say as a young man it eventually formed in my mind that I wanted to become a rugby commentator. After leaving school I joined the old New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation as a cadet and I used to regularly meet Winston. What a thrill! He would come into the office on a Friday for a chat about rugby and record his previews. Then he and the senior blokes would head off to De Brett’s Hotel to talk some more. Or listen to Winston some more. He sure knew how to hold court.
The first things I remember about him were his loud and salty language, his outrageous views on every-bloody-thing and his indifference when someone mentioned to him that this ‘Young Quinn’ had ambitions to be a commentator. Years later he told me that such aspirations were mentioned to him all over the place every day and he tired of hearing them. In pubs men used to come up and broadcast to him into empty beer glasses, mimicking the sound of a radio commentary, or they would just shout loudly, ‘Hey Winston! LISTEN!!! – It’s a goal!’ Winston could talk but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.
In time he and I became good friends. He had seen rugby played 40 years earlier, in the 1920s. I enjoyed him passing the stories on to me. He gave me some very sound advice about commentary. He really understood how a good broadcaster should use the rise and fall of his or her voice, and its modulation, and he really understood timing, when not to talk over crowd noise, that sort of thing. His call of ‘Listen! – It’s a goal!’ was a classic example of using crowd noise. And his sharp advice about how to deal with public criticism I have never forgotten. ‘Sonny, it doesn’t matter what they say about you,’ he would say, ‘as long as they spell your name right.’
Even though there was no TV in those days Winston was easily recognisable to the public. Most affectionately called him by his first name. The NZBC used to put out long-playing records of his radio commentaries and they became huge best sellers. I still have my copies. I also have his personal scrapbook from the 1945-46 Kiwi Army tour of UK. It was given to me by a friend who he had passed it on to. It is priceless to me. It has his hand-written summary notes of each tour game with each one beginning, ‘Hello New Zealand…”
In 1956 when the Springboks toured for their epic series Winston was so popular only the four tests were allowed by the NZRU to be broadcast live. He was affecting gate takings around the country. Club games in all cities had to be played in the mornings so that everyone could rush home to thrill to his call in the afternoons. Apart from the tests all other afternoon tour games were delayed until 5 p.m replays.
Winston’s glory years as a commentator lasted only from the Kiwi tour through to the British Lions tour in 1959. Thereafter he wrote books and newspaper columns. I was really wild when I heard that members of the 1970 All Blacks on their tour of South Africa didn’t rate his reports for ‘NZ Truth’ very highly. One time at a team barbeque some players grabbed him and swung him back and forth over a blazing bonfire. Then they dropped him on the ground and broke his arm. Winston was then 62 years old. Mind you, in his early years the 1949 All Blacks on their way home from South Africa had dangled him feet first over the side of a boat. His comments didn’t always meet universal approval. But one thing I gained from hours of listening to him was that he deeply loved the game. And his affection for the All Blacks was total.
I last saw Winston in 1983 sitting by himself at Eden Park having a cup of tea before a Lions tour game. Most people were just passing by, not aware perhaps of the role that the old bloke sitting there had played in New Zealand. For 15 years he was the eyes and ears of the national game. I stopped and chatted and he offered encouragement for my work.
Winston McCarthy was a great broadcaster and a powerful on air personality. I always appreciated that. He lived by the Oscar Wilde credo ‘the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’
These days old timers sometimes ask me if his radio style would have survived in today’s world of widespread TV comparison. While it was often said he could make a dull game sound exciting but I am certain his personality would have made him as significant on TV in today’s world. Winston was a performer. He swept me along in his style and was a hero’s influence on the young lad from a tiny post war town.
In fact after hearing Winston - and seeing him in action - I only wanted to be like him.
Bob Barber ended his time with the All Blacks in Australia and Fiji; in his last four starting games he was no.8, flanker, lock and prop.
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.
Which New Zealand sports broadcaster once described a tight tennis match as 'a Battle of Nutrition.'