Voices of Sport: Ian Robertson - The BBC rugby man who produced an all-time classic piece of commentary when England won the World Cup

Nick Metcalfe

In our weekly series, Yahoo Sport’s Nick Metcalfe features a famous voice of sport. With England taking on old rivals Australia at Twickenham this weekend, 5 Live rugby union commentator Ian Robertson is the latest to go under the spotlight.

We’ve enjoyed many wonderful voices on the radio over the decades, and Ian Robertson is right up there with the very best.

A big rugby union occasion on 5 Live would just feel incomplete without that voice. Be it World Cup, Six Nations, Lions tours or big domestic matches, Robertson has been the man behind the microphone for generations.

He has always been brilliant at conveying the drama of a game over the airwaves and the simple experience of listening can be a thrilling one when he is on duty.

Robertson has been involved with rugby all his days. He was a very fine fly-half, good enough for Cambridge University, Watsonians, London Scottish and the Barbarians.

And between 1968 and 1970 he was a full international, playing eight times for Scotland. His most famous moment as a player came in 1970, when Scotland claimed a 14-5 win over old rivals England in their Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield.

Unfortunately, Robertson’s career was cut short at the age of 25 by a serious knee injury. At the time, he was an English teacher at Fettes College in Edinburgh - for a while he taught a young Tony Blair - but soon received an offer to join BBC Radio. 

Robertson was obviously keen to stay involved with rugby, and he joined the corporation in 1972. He established himself as a voice of great authority on his beloved sport, and became rugby union correspondent in 1983. It’s a job he has held for 33 years and counting.

Rugby union has changed enormously in Robertson’s time, transforming itself from an amateur to professional sport. The World Cup, which had relatively humble beginnings, has become one of the biggest sporting events in the world. BBC TV may have only shown the tournament once, in 1987, but every tournament apart from one has been covered in full by BBC Radio.

And whether it was Radio 2 in 1987, Radio 5 in 1991, or 5 Live since 1995, Robertson has been the main man. Many unforgettable sporting moments have taken place, including an epic 1987 semi-final between Australia and France, England reaching the 1991 final and South Africa winning on home soil in 1995. 

The image of South Africa President Nelson Mandela - who only left prison five years earlier - handing the trophy to winning captain Francois Pienaar in 1995 became an image that resonated far beyond sport. Robertson was there that day, as he has been on every day in rugby that has really mattered for as long as most of us can remember.

I have a very strong memory of Robertson commentating on the match between New Zealand and Japan during the group stages at that tournament, the All Blacks winning an outrageously one-sided contest 145-17. Keen gambler Robertson had money on them winning by a certain number of points, and he could barely disguise his glee.

Radio listeners could hardly have been more blessed at the tournaments of 1991, 1995 and 1999. Not only did they have Robertson, but Bill McLaren, who I profiled in this series last month.

Robertson’s finest hour as a commentator came at the 2003 World Cup in Australia. Sir Clive Woodward’s England went into the event as favourites, and despite not always being convincing they reached the final and a clash with the hosts in Sydney.

It was a titanic night, and it produced sporting theatre for the ages. Robertson, as he did for many years, worked alongside former England international Alastair Hignell at the game. Being the senior man, he described the second 20 minutes of both halves. As it turned out, he also commentated on the second half of extra-time.

With just seconds remaining, the scores were level at 17-17. Sydney’s Olympic Stadium was at fever pitch. Cue Robertson.

“There’s 35 seconds to go, this is the one, it’s coming back for Jonny Wilkinson, he drops for World Cup glory, it’s up, it’s over, he’s done it, Jonny Wilkinson is England’s hero yet again, and there’s no time for Australia to come back. England have just won the World Cup.”

The sound of a delirious Rob Andrew screaming into his microphone alongside Robertson only added to the drama of the commentary. It deserves its place in the pantheon of great moments in sports broadcasting, up there with “They think it’s all over” from the 1966 World Cup final or “Do you believe in miracles?” from the 1980 Winter Olympics.

With respect to John Taylor, who commentated on the final for ITV, it was Robertson’s words that nearly all fans will associate with that magical Wilkinson moment. To this day, it remains the only time a team from the northern hemisphere has claimed the sport’s greatest prize. 

Robertson was given due recognition for his efforts when he was named Speech Broadcaster Of The Year at radio’s prestigious Sony Awards in 2004.

That commentary may have been the ultimate for Robertson, but in some ways it was reminiscent of hundreds he has done at less grand moments. He always has that fabulous way of raising his voice and peaking when the drama is at its highest.

There are few things better for lovers of radio sport than a hard-fought international going into its closing stages with both teams still able to win. Robertson is made for those moments. He has a breathless excitement about him that lends itself so well to great sport.

Robertson is a renowned after-dinner speaker and a keen golfer - if he becomes elusive on tour, the chances are you will find him at the best course in town. He’a also a big racing fan. In fact, you can imagine him faring well with describing that sport too.

But it’s always been about rugby for Robertson, or “Robbo” as he’s universally known. He described another appearance for England in a World Cup final in 2007, as South Africa claimed glory in Paris, and even though talkSPORT had the radio rights for the 2011 tournament, he was back for last year’s spectacular in England. 

The 2015 final between Australia and New Zealand, with the All Blacks winning the famous prize for the third time, is widely considered to be one of the finest matches in the history of the sport. Robertson was as excellent as he always is. Truly, the man for the big occasion. 

He hasn’t only commentated over the years of course, but been the main mouthpiece of the sport on radio. When any significant issue has arisen in rugby union, correspondent Robertson has been on hand to try and make sense of it all. Typically, he has always done it in measured, thoughtful fashion. 

Robertson shows no sign of letting up. The seasons come and go, but there’s that one reliable constant in the commentary box. Another Six Nations will be upon us early in the new year, and once again the genial Scot - who turns 72 in January - will be the main man on radio. Long may we enjoy listening.

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