Today, April 13, marks 18 years since the legendary rugby commentator Bill McLaren, known as ‘The Voice of Rugby’, put down his microphone for one last time after a career spanning 50 years.
Seven days previously he was alongside Jonathan Davies commentating on his last ever international - fittingly for a proud man from Hawick a 27-22 Scotland victory in Cardiff against Wales - and then he was back up the road to his beloved Borders.
The Melrose Sevens at The Greenyards in early to mid-April has always been a big day in the Scottish rugby calendar and in 2002 it took on extra importance because it was McLaren’s last hurrah.
Professional until the end, and then 78-years-young, his planning for the big day was as meticulous as ever and he was down at various training sessions during the days in the lead up to the tournament to help him identify players from all of the different clubs.
Gala had won the event in 1999, but in 2000 and 2001 guest teams Nawaka and the Barbarians had lifted the famous Ladies Cup.
As a result, it was about time that a Scottish club got their hands back on the trophy and a well balanced Boroughmuir squad duly delivered.
“To win the Melrose Sevens is something every Scottish rugby player wants to have been able to do in their rugby career and we just clicked that day and it was magical,” Boroughmuir’s captain from the time David Cunningham told TRU.
“To have the legendary Bill McLaren commentating as we won the trophy was the icing on the cake.
“I had been lucky enough to meet him a few times because before XV-a-side games he would sometimes come to Meggetland to familiarise himself with the squad before games and have a natter.
“In the lead up to that Melrose Sevens we had all seen the warm send off that he had been given down in Cardiff and we knew that he was doing his last ever commentary that day at The Greenyards.
“Everyone in Scottish rugby had such affection for Bill, his turn of phrase was just amazing and it is so good for me and the rest of the Boroughmuir squad from 2002 to have our big moment commentated on by him when we look back at the clips all these years later.
“I always remember the banner hanging from the stand that said ‘Best wishes and thanks Bill from all at Melrose’ - a fitting tribute.”
“I knew we could cause teams problems, but we had only actually had one sevens training session before the tournament”
The Edinburgh club had previously been successful at The Greenyards in 1963 and 1976, but the then current crop from Meggetland were out to make their own history.
They wanted to following in the footsteps of the 1963 squad made up of Kenneth Ross, Ian Robertson, Andrew Haggart, Bill Herries, Alan Irvine, Gordon Irving and Arthur Leitch and the 1976 vintage of Norman Morrison, Bruce Hay, Peter Millican, Bill Watson, Mike Baillie, Graham Hogg and Duncan Wilson.
Given that that 1976 group included guys such as Hay who went on to play for Scotland and the British & Irish Lions and Watson and Hogg who both represented their country, they were a tough act to try and follow some 26 years later.
However, the ‘Muir squad of 2001/02 had just missed out on the top flight XV-a-side title prior to the sevens season and the squad that went down to Melrose - Cunningham being joined by Olly Brown, James Reilly, Mike Blair, Ally Warnock, Malcolm Clapperton, Rory Couper, Kevin Brown and Matt Morrell had experience, youth, power and pace so had half a chance of doing well.
“It was a good squad on paper and I knew that if we could get the ball out wide to our quicker guys like Rory and Matt then we could cause teams problems, but because of the length of the XVs season we had only actually had one sevens training session before the tournament,” Cunningham, a hooker in both formats of the games who had begun life at the Haddington club, revealed.
“We were coached by [ex-Scotland and Lions man] Iain Paxton and he worked hard in the limited time we had on our game shape and tactics and we headed down to the Borders looking to give it our best shot, but with little expectations.”
They took on Kirkcaldy in the first round - in an event including 24 teams the ‘extra tie’ if you like - and tries from Blair (3), Reilly, Clapperton saw them win 27-12.
Next up were Jed-Forest and ‘Muir came from behind to win 17-14 thanks to tries from Warnock (2), Blair.
Clapperton, Blair (2), Couper and Morrell bagged the scores versus Uruguay in the last eight before the big test against the Barbarians in the semi-final.
“We were going well, but we knew that one would be a stiff challenge,” Cunningham stated.
“They had guts like Arwel Thomas of Wales and Brett Robinson of Australia in their ranks as well as guys we knew well like Daren Burns and Charlie Keenan, but we scored early through Clappy and Ally went from there.”
Blair grabbed the third try in a 19-12 win to set-up a final with a Scottish Thistles outfit including Sean Lamont.
“In the final we just wanted it so much,” Cunningham said.
“Clappy scored and then Mike and then Ally before I managed to get in on the action and get one!
“In the second half Mike got his second, then Olly went over and to win 38-5 was just amazing.”
“Mike Blair, certainly one for the future”When Blair, named player of the tournament, scored his second try against Uruguay, McLaren mused “Mike Blair, certainly one for the future”.
Fast forward 18 years and Blair has a fine rugby CV, 85 Scotland caps and a Lions tour behind him as a scrum-half and now part of the Scotland XV-a-side coaching set-up.
Indeed, he was just 20 when he lit up The Greenyards and he made his full Scotland debut two months later, then 21, in Canada.
“Mike was on fire that day,” said Cunningham.
“His rugby brain was just so quick and it was really the playmaker type skills of him and Ally Warnock that were the catalyst for us. They created space and the rest of us worked hard around them and it was so satisfying to see Mike go on and have such a brilliant career.”
Bill McLaren passed away in 2010, but The Bill McLaren Foundation continues his legacy and raises funds to help youngsters get involved in sport and more: billmclarenfoundation.co.uk