Book Review - Rugby: Talking a Good Game

Ian Robertson shows relentless enthusiasm for his 47 years of fun at the BBC
17:00, 06 Jan 2020

Ian Robertson, the former BBC rugby commentator and one of its last distinctive voices of sport, left the gantry in 2018 with little to complain about. Retiring from the corporation after 47 years (it was his choice), rather than a more aesthetically pleasing 50, might have bothered some people, as would that colon in the title, but Robertson is a man who has extracted more than enough delight from his career to transcend such vexations. 

Born in Edinburgh in 1945, he immersed himself in sport immediately, and although he self-deprecates frequently on a modest rugby talent, especially his inability to get anywhere near opponents when his own physical integrity was at stake, he was selected for Scotland eight times and made the Lions shortlist before his ligaments went. 

That first Scotland call up in 1968 also included the following financial consideration: “Please bring with you one pair of rugby boots. We will present you with your stockings and jersey, which must last the whole season. Should you wish to swap your jersey with a member of the opposition, you will be able to buy a replacement for 15 shillings. If you are arriving by train at Waverley, you can catch either the 23 or the 27 bus. Your fare will be refunded in full.” The glamour of it.

Eventually, that thwarted international experience helped provide an entrée to the commentary booth as a protégé to the legendary Bill McLaren, and the beginning of a prolific media career. And that's when the BBC was synonymous with the finest events the sporting calendar had to offer.

There he learnt that “Fluency is everything in radio commentary – every ‘um’ is an embarrassment, every ‘er’ a humiliation”, and McLaren showed what it took to achieve it. A teacher during the week, he squeezed in 18 hours of preparation for every rugby broadcast.

When Robertson later asked why the epitome of radio anchor smoothness Des Lynam was hunched over his desk one quiet Monday morning, he was told he was listening back to the previous Saturday’s show, all five hours of it, a weekly session of auto-criticism that would have delighted Mao himself. 

The Robertson brogue was later also bestowed on racing and golf coverage, and his rugby credentials eased his passage into showbusiness too, as he befriended rugby fanatics Peter O’Toole, Richard Harris and Richard Burton.

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“To today’s generation, he (Burton) might not mean much more than Willie John McBride or Phil Bennett or any of the other Lions greats of the 1970s,” he writes. And indeed, for all his after-dinner corralling of anecdote (there’s a great story about blagging an interview with Nelson Mandela, then Mandela upbraiding him at a later event for not saying hello. “When I walked in and our eyes met, I recognised you immediately,” says Robertson by way of explanation to the great leader, “I just couldn’t remember your name.”

You’ll be needing an appetite for the last fifty years of rugby as voracious as the author’s to derive full nutritional value from his memoir. 

Every so often, the selection dilemmas of Lions tours past, Caledonian club rugby rivalries and fantasies of Scotland crushing England by obscene margins wander into “Only Connect” levels of obscurity.

Yet every so often too, most people would happily find themselves open to discussions over just what they’d have to give up in their own lives to get their hands on Robertson’s relentless enthusiasm for his “47 years of fun.”

Rugby: Talking a Good Game, by Ian Robertson. Hodder, £10.99