“D Davies; Chariot Repairs. Wheels replaced. No Job Too Small”. So scrawled a Welsh prop of my acquaintance on the club selection board after England had unexpectedly come off the road against the Land of his Fathers.
Ah yes, very funny, Dylan. And probably anti-English. But England’s Sweet Chariot now looks to be headed not for the repair shop but the scrapyard. #CarryThemHome – The RFU’s hashtag for all Twitter communications last season – has already vanished down the memory hole, and somewhere a Winston Smith is expunging the old spiritual from all Twickenham records.
I was at the game where it first burst onto the England scene. Twickenham spontaneously striking up the choir as Chris Oti – a black winger out of Wasps – rounded a hapless Trevor Ringland and notched up a hat trick against Ireland. It would have cost him a jug of beer. Rory Underwood, the Anglo-Malaysian on the other wing, nabbed two, so would have been fined a jug for hat trick evasion.
Such, back then, was rugby. A sport which was permanently intertwined with a party. It emerged into the public consciousness only briefly: for the Five Nations – as then it was – and for the occasional visits of touring southern hemisphere sides who were strange curiosities rather than regular autumn migrants to our shores.
For most of the year it lived a quietly raucous existence in stygian club houses where all sorts of behaviour went unspotted and un-tutted at. Even grand clubs like Quins played out of one-stand, one-mound after-thoughts hidden up suburban roads in Twickenham, Wembley, Blackheath or Sunbury. And I should know, I played for nearly thirty years at clubs from Sheffield Tigers in the north to Harlequins in the south.
It was, in those days, a small and private party. Cosa nostra – our thing. Warm, comfortable, cosy and welcoming. But like all parties it demanded song, and rugby had a million of them. Most of which are nowadays unrepeatable and covered all the modern sins from misogyny to homophobia to, yes, racism – latter charge being what is about to send Sweet Chariot home.
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Songs, adapted down many years from music halls, pop hits, hymns and arias, and even scatological versions of national anthems, were de rigueur. In France, they might encompass seeing off some long-forgotten raid by the English in the Hundred Years War, or some Basque-ish war cry. Harlequins was very fond of Running Bear, an old hit by Johnny Preston which, involving thwarted love between a chief and a squaw from opposing tribes, is almost certainly now offensive.
Touring sides appointed a choir master for any given bus trip, and back in France le troisième mi-temps (the third half) was a mandatory sing-song, town band often included. What these musical moments had in common were bruises, beer, comradeship, the defusing of on-field tensions and easy-to-sing, low register songs suited for mass, untrained male voices. Roll forward Sweet Chariot.
Everyone joined in. Everyone. Girls would join in with alacrity as The Engineer’s Song, a tragic and pornographic ballad of steam-driven contraptions designed to satisfy country girls of insatiable appetite, unfolded across clubhouses. And I vividly remember a black soldier sparking up Way Down in Alabama, the lyrics of which are now almost certainly (and rightly) criminal.
As the game went pro – often in attitude if not in actual fact – and became managerial, all this began to die. The culture is more isotonic, the RFU warns of seeing off even soft drinks in one for fear of cold water drowning. The changing room is more diverse. Ladies rugby is increasingly popular. Most young players don’t know the words and don’t hang around club houses post-match long enough to get involved in parties. The away bus is a sober conveyance and the solitary world of headphones has replaced communal singing.
All of which is only a very marginal shame. Times change and the truth is rugby has been dragged out of its old wooden club house and into the light where its highly developed sense of virtue, along with its musical tastes, have not always stood examination. Nowadays, speed over 60m is more prized than speed with a yard of ale. Elbow swinging involves a large dumb bell. Body composition eschews Guinness and memorising ever more complex line-out calls trumps a knowledge of every verse of the Highland Tinker.
And yet through this, Swing Low increasingly stands as a lone survivor. And precisely because it was first to be outed. It became anthemic. When Twickenham is in the mood it thunders down from those towering stands. It drowns out hakas (surely more controversial?), it powers rolling mauls, it lifts flagging defences.
A trip to HQ isn’t cheap or easy. We live with the poor rail service , the extortionate prices, the plastic beer, the endless exhortation to buy. But not a man, not a woman, not a child emptying their lungs for England has any other thought than this; that somehow the collective power of 80,000 voices will help the team. The joy in a metaphorical shoulder to the national scrum. We, the crowd, are helping, and it doesn’t matter whether the ball carrier is Maro Itoje or Ellis Genge, Mako Vunipola or Owen Farrell, our support is colour blind just as it was when Chris Oti went over for his hat trick.
Don’t take that from us now.