Current Affairs

National anthem: This time with feeling

New Zealand is not the only rugby nation whose pre-match ditty inspires mixed feelings in players and spectators.

In light of the abuse heaped on our plodding exhortation for God to defend us, it’s ironic that New Zealand was responsible for establishing the tradition of singing national anthems before rugby internationals.

In 1905, when the All Blacks came to Cardiff to play Wales, the home side’s response to the haka was for winger Teddy Morgan to sing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. A crowd of 40,000 joined in and the tradition of singing anthems before sporting events was born. “One could not wish for a more striking example of the inspiration of music,” wrote a London sports correspondent.

Among Rugby World Cup nations, the French, Italian and Welsh anthems are the neutral’s choice whereas the Georgian song would inspire an advance on Moscow. Of God Defend New Zealand, a Scottish rugby writer recently said it’s “a dreary snore-along”.

Yet national anthems and flags do make political statements. In the mid-1970s, the English Rugby Football Union retaliated for a Cardiff crowd’s booing during God Save the Queen by banning the Welsh anthem from Twickenham. “It would be a pity if the anthem’s absence led to the break-up of the UK,” wrote a Welsh rugby fan in a letter to the Times. The English officials had a change of heart and the Welsh anthem was heard.

At the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosts South Africa pulled off the ultimate act of musical diplomacy. The overwhelmingly white Springboks worked with a tutor to learn the words to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika – a former black resistance song in the Xhosa language. They also sang apartheid-era Die Stem, for a combined six minutes, a long time for septuagenarian President Nelson Mandela to stay standing. Today’s five-­language anthem is the shortened compromise, although there’s pressure for Die Stem to be removed from the rainbow mix.

THE IRISH PROBLEM

The tradition that took hold in 1905 was for the home side’s anthem only to be sung. It would be close to the end of the 20th century before it became common to hear both anthems. This was a problem in Ireland where “home” matches alternated between Belfast and Dublin. When Ireland played in the North, they’d sing God Save the Queen and when they played in the Republic they’d sing Amhrán na bhFiann (The Soldier’s Song). Written by the uncle of Irish poet Brendan Behan, the song, which includes the lines “No more our ancient sire land shall shelter the despot or the slave”, became popular after it was sung by republican rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916.

But at the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, Ireland decided it needed a unifying anthem, especially as a month before the competition an IRA bomb had ended the career of one of its best players. After a hasty search, a scratchy recording of The Rose of Tralee was produced for the match between Ireland and Wales in Wellington.

The Irish players, who had just listened to a rousing rendition of the Welsh anthem, stood in bemused silence as the words “The pale moon was rising above the green mountain” played. Some of them had never heard the song and few knew the words. “There are many songs you are going to lay down your life for,” recalled former Ireland winger Trevor Ringland, “but a really bad tape-recording of The Rose of Tralee was not one of them.”

Ireland’s solution was to call on Phil Coulter, who wrote Shang-A-Lang for the Bay City Rollers, and Ireland’s Call was born in 1995. Coulter said he had to come up with something inclusive, accessible, stirring and recognisable. He expected resistance at first to the new song and he was right. Over the years it grew in popularity and was adopted by other Irish sports teams, but even today some rugby fans refuse to stay standing for the song at home matches in Dublin. And every time a World Cup rolls around there are calls for a more stirring Irish song such as France’s Marseillaise or the Welsh anthem to replace “Ireland’s Bawl”.

The Scots may have voted no to independence last year but there are fresh nationalistic calls for Flower of Scotland to be given official anthem status. It’s been used as an anthem by the Scottish rugby team since winger Billy Steele encouraged his teammates to sing it on the victorious Lions tour of South Africa in 1974. The song celebrates Robert the Bruce’s victory over England’s Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 and whenever the refrain That stood against him/Proud Edward’s Army/And sent him homeward/To think again is belted out at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield, the cameras invariably cut to Princess Anne, a patron of the Scottish Rugby Union. Then she has to stand there as 70,000 people appeal to God to save her mum.

The English have long grumbled about the missing rouse factor of their anthem, which also does service in New Zealand. The description “dirge” pops up regularly in the press (the same word Andrew Little used for God Defend New Zealand, an anthem Winston Peters also derides). And the failure of new British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to add his voice as the song was sung at a recent Battle of Britain commemoration has prompted yet more calls for England to find a new song to unite monarchists, atheists, republicans and stand-up comedians.

“Now the Queen lives in a very big house, she has barbed wire outside and people with guns in front of that. That’s one saved f---in’ Queen I tell ya,” said Eddie Izzard.

Chimed in Billy Connolly, “I think the Queen should be saved. It’s a great idea, and if anybody’s going to save her, God’s the very chap.”

THE SWISS SOLUTION

In that bastion of neutrality, Switzerland, they’ve gone down the democratic route. Why put up with a national anthem described as a biblical weather forecast – “When the morning skies grow red … Thou, O Lord, appearest in their light. When the Alps glow bright with splendour” – when an X Factor-style talent contest could be held to find a new one? Thirty judges including a yodelling expert, a theology professor and a slam poet whittled down more than 200 entries to a handful of semi-finalists before an online vote produced a final three songs. These were performed live on television and viewers voted by text. The winner was written by a 62-year-old healthcare director from Zurich.

The Swiss solution would surely appeal to former Irish international Neil Francis who said of Ireland’s Call: “I guarantee you that given a few hours over a few pints and a blank sheet of paper, a couple of us could come up with a better song.” Maybe that’s the answer: Little and Peters in a bar, a few basic rhymes and a sprinkling of nationalist fervour. Something short, simple and catchy. Sung aloud.

Words by Lydia Monin
Photos by Getty Images