It’s been a mystery to me these 30 years, why we sing Swing Low to England.
Read the BBC article on the link to get the full story, but a bit of context.
Back in 1987 rugby was mainly played in public schools and the England team were primarily graduates of Durham who finished off their education with a qualification in Land Economy at Cambridge. I remember writing an essay for England’s inside centre in return for him playing in our Cambridge College “cuppers” tournament.
It wasn’t until 1995 that rugby union allowed professional and by then Offiah was a superstar in rugby league – where he was paid. The video above is all the more remarkable as in the crowd were the scouts that lured Offiah to the professional game
A song that changed rugby for ever?
After 1995, rugby players didn’t have to get fake qualifications from Cambridge and got paid properly for playing. This led to the game becoming much less the preserve of private schools as any kid could learn to play through the club system and have an expectation of making a living from the game.
It was losing Offiah and other talents to rugby league (especially in Wales) that hastened the shift to professional rugby.
Rosslyn Park, the team in the red and white hoops, have never really adapted to the professional game and currently play in the third division of English rugby. Harlequins, the other team in the video are two tiers above them and fully professional.
But Rosslyn Park remains, to my generation of private school boys, the place we played sevens, the club of Andy Ripley and the epitome of the English amateur game
So this game between Harlequins and Rosslyn Park is really historic for rugby. Not only is it the first recorded occasion when Swing Low was sung, but it marked the moment when Offiah started a journey to professionalism.
Amazingly , according to comments made by Offiah to the BBC, he didn’t know the song was sung to him. This despite him being called “Chariot” by his Chairman at Rosslyn Park.
Of course the song has some awkward connotations. It referred to the passing of slaves – Offiah came from Nigerian descent. I wonder if our woke society would consider its singing “appropriate”, if it hadn’t already become part of English rugby heritage.
Why we sing the song.
It would be ironic if the song, which can clearly be heard in the BBC video , was what made Doug Laughton offer Offiah a professional contract.
I wonder – now we know how the song first came to be sung, if singing it will ever be the same!
Chariots of Fire – Welland’s masterpiece , also dealt with the issues surrounding entitlement and is another product of the 1980s, I was in my second year at Cambridge when it came out.
The reference is to a line from Jerusalem – a poem by William Blake about liberating Britain from the yoke of tyranny. The dark satanic mils processed cotton from the plantations where swing low sweet chariot was first sung.
Jerusalem was adopted by the ruling classes and is still sung at Twickenham by us public school boys – who were taught the words back in the day.
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:Bring me my arrows of desire:Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!Bring me my Chariot of fire!I will not cease from Mental Fight,Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:Till we have built Jerusalem,In Englands green & pleasant Land.
Rugby has moved on, and we sing nostalgically .Professionalism has brought rugby to everyone and the game has improved for it.
Now , it is not worth commenting on the colour of someone’s skin and whether you went to the right school and university has nothing to do with your credentials as a rugby player.
I’d like to think that William Blake is smiling.