Story: McCarthy, Winston John

Page 1 - Biography

McCarthy, Winston John

1908–1984

Broadcaster, journalist, writer

This biography was written by S. B. Zavos and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Winston John McCarthy, the ‘Voice of New Zealand Rugby’, was born at Wellington on 10 March 1908, the son of Hugh Donald McCarthy, a salesman, and his wife, Alice Maud Collins, who died when he was six years old. Winston was educated at the Marist brothers’ schools at Newtown and Thorndon, then at St Patrick’s College, Wellington, from 1923 to 1925. This school was addicted to its version of the two Rs: religion and rugby. The young McCarthy excelled as halfback and gathered a prodigious knowledge about many sports, particularly through reading the sporting newspapers. In the early 1930s he represented Manawatu B and Bush at rugby. He played rugby league on the West Coast for the Waiuta club in 1936, but a shoulder injury forced his retirement. He was noticeably short, and his rugby style – inventive and cheeky – was to be reflected in his broadcasting style.

Winston McCarthy worked at various jobs after leaving school – office clerk, farm labourer, trainee ladies’ hairdresser and goldminer – before he found his niche in radio. In April 1937 he began work as programme organiser for the National Broadcasting Service at 2YD in Wellington. Here, on 4 March 1938, he married Jean Winifred McGregor. They were to have three children.

During the Second World War he was assigned to the Army Education and Welfare Service, where he worked with the well-known sports broadcaster Wallie Ingram. When the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force rugby team of 1945–46, called the Kiwis, was selected from soldiers serving in Europe, McCarthy was given the job of broadcasting the matches. The Kiwis played 38 matches and won 32, including victories against England, Wales and France. The team captured the imagination of war-weary New Zealanders, and the prime minister, Peter Fraser, enjoyed his broadcasts. McCarthy knew intuitively that radio was a powerful medium that required the involvement of its audience. When the Kiwis played England at Twickenham, Herbie Cook, the Kiwis’ fullback, took his time over a long kick at goal and McCarthy scrambled to fill in the seconds. ‘If this goes over,’ McCarthy said, desperately ad libbing, ‘you’ll hear the roar of the crowd back in New Zealand’. When Cook finally kicked the ball, McCarthy shouted: ‘Listen … it’s a goal!’ McCarthy’s commentaries were the first live rugby broadcasts to New Zealand from the United Kingdom. Virtually overnight, he became a household name.

For his broadcasts Winston McCarthy prepared information charts on players and kept massive scrapbooks, but there was also a strong element of showmanship in his radio style. He enjoyed doing party pieces: his Harry Lauder impersonation was so accurate the famous entertainer offered to include him in his act. During his commentaries, McCarthy would switch roles from play-by-play caller to that of the broadcasting spectator. ‘Put it in again, sonny,’ he said if the ball came out of a scrum, and ‘goodness gracious me’ when something untoward happened. The listener was drawn into the game. After a frenetic passage of play, he would lower his voice to a hoarse whisper. He once said, ‘It’s all a question of light and shade. You can’t yell and scream all the time. You’ve got to build up your broadcasts, build up situations. In a moment of great tension you relax people with a bit of humour and then you turn the screws again’. The phrases that slipped off his tongue, such as ‘They’ll never catch him now’ or ‘A well-hit golf ball into the wind, they say the wind won’t affect it’ became mantras for thousands of rugby supporters. As a party trick in the late 1950s, young men narrated the McCarthy commentary of a 1956 test against the Springboks. They memorised it word-for-word from the long-playing record of highlights of the test broadcasts.

His last commentary of a rugby test match was the fourth on the 1959 Lions tour. Before the era of television, when radio and rugby were New Zealand passions, he had broadcast 38 tests, creating vivid, unforgettable word pictures. He had also commentated other sports, such as cricket and boxing, and commentated at the 1950 and 1954 British Empire and Commonwealth and 1956 Olympic games. He was a prolific rugby writer. His books included Broadcasting with the Kiwis (1947), The All Blacks on trek again (1950), Round the world with the All Blacks (1954), Rugby in my time (1958), Haka! the All Blacks story (1968), and Listen…! It’s a goal! (1973). He also wrote Haka: the Maori rugby story (1983) in conjunction with R. J. Howitt.

Winston McCarthy and his first wife, Jean, were divorced on 30 September 1969. In 1970 Winston covered the All Blacks’ tour of South Africa for NZ Truth , after which, on 13 November, he married Joan Harrison Jackson, a public servant. His second wife was tall and had a laconic Yorkshire manner, and McCarthy was short and voluble: they made an incongruous but loving couple. Winston McCarthy died on 2 January 1984 at Auckland, survived by Joan and two sons and one daughter from his first marriage. His ashes were interred at Purewa, Auckland.