February 24, 2007. A momentous evening is about to begin.
Croke Park, in Dublin, readies to host a rugby test match between England and Ireland. All about the ground, there is an air of apprehension. The build-up has been fraught with tension, rife with controversy, bitterness, and uncertainty. The stadium has great historical significance, being the site of a “Bloody Sunday” late in the fall of 1920. On that fateful day, British troops, the notorious Black and Tans, open fire on spectators attending a Gaelic football event. Fourteen civilians lose their lives, part of a War of Independence that shapes a tense history between the nations.
The respective teams take the pitch. Fears that vociferous booing and jeering by the home crowd might drown out “God Save The Queen” fail to materialize. Instead, the huge pro-Irish crowd, some 70,000 in total, unite in magnificent renditions of not one, but two national anthems. Up first is “Amhran na bhFiann”, the Soldiers Song. Immediately following, the masses literally do stand shoulder to shoulder, to answer “Ireland’s Call.”
In this pulsating and impassioned setting, battle hardened men, soon set to clash on the field of play, are reduced to tears. England never has a chance, as a super-charged Ireland team, in commanding form, romps home 43-13.
Numerous other examples abound. It is well-nigh impossible to forget Whitney Houston’s stirring performance of the American national anthem at the 1991 Super Bowl. Though pre-recorded, the Grammy Award winning pop star's interpretation and delivery both rouse and comfort a fragile nation just days into the Gulf War. F-16 jets execute a flyover, President George HW Bush attends dressed in a flak jacket, people weep unashamedly in the stands. And, as “The Star Spangled Banner” concludes, Houston raises her arms, reaches up, then throws her head back in a classic victory pose.
Now, while singing or playing national anthems are certainly not limited only to athletic competitions, for me personally, most of the other significant versions I recall do take place at such events.
In no particular order, I remember a young boy eagerly awaiting the annual Christmas visit of the USSR ice hockey team. Of our family trip to Victoria to the big arena, the smell of hot dogs, smothered in mustard and fried onions, permeating the concourse. Scrambling to our seats in order to watch the warmup. The red sweaters, CCCP emblazoned across the chest. Canada, back then just a collection of amateurs not quite good enough to make the NHL, unfairly matched against a Soviet juggernaut. Yet, I don’t care, as the majestic, powerful Russian anthem leaves a lump in my throat.
Or my international rugby debut, against Japan. The team lines up as “O Canada” blasts from the stadium loudspeakers. Me fidgeting, equal parts adrenaline, anticipation, jangled nerves, and butterflies. Then, on the referee circuit, before the World U19 final in Toulouse, absorbing a moving “Le Marseillaise”. Named France’s national anthem in 1795, it is, for a short time anyway, the rallying call for revolution! My fractured French may not be the best, but I am able to recognize the references to glory, marches, and bloody flags of tyranny.
And there are more. I dream of a dank, dreich afternoon in Edinburgh, at Murrayfield, the national arena. There, massed pipe and drum bands deliver rousing versions of both Highland Cathedral and "Flower of Scotland". Hard to top that double act.
Unless of course one happens to be in Argentina for a rugby series between the Pumas and South Africa. First in Tucuman, then at a jammed River Plate stadium in Buenos Aires, the teams go at it hammer and tongs. On both occasions, the two anthems leave me with goosebumps. Literally shivering. The Springboks launch into “Nkosi sikelel iAfrika”, or God Bless Africa, with unbridled enthusiasm. In return, many of the host players are overcome with emotion while belting out the "Himno Nacional". Let us live with glory or die glorious, they sing. And they mean it.
So, I am blessed. Blessed to have a box seat at numerous notable sporting competitions. Blessed also to take in many notable renderings of various pre-game national anthems. And yet, looking back on some 50+ years of playing, coaching, and refereeing, in multiple disciplines and at all levels, I occasionally ponder just when, why and how this ritual ever got its start.
I believe one must go back in time, more than a century, to find the answers. It is December 1905, and a New Zealand national side visits the British Isles. These Original All Blacks, otherwise unbeaten on the tour and on their way to achieving legendary status in the rugby world, eventually meet a Welsh XV fresh off winning the Triple Crown. The match is played at the famous Cardiff Arms Park.
Some of the Kiwi aura is put down to the “haka”, a challenge to the opposition immediately before kickoff. Originally composed and choreographed by a Maori chief, Te Rauparaha, this intimidating ceremonial chant and dance, complete with stomping and slapping, depicts courage, respect, strength, power, and physical prowess.
However, keen to negate any psychological advantage the visitors might enjoy, the Welsh team formulates a clever plan. In response to the haka, it leads a standing room only crowd in singing the national anthem. It is the first time ever such a tactic is used.
And it works. The fiercely fought game is decided midway through the first half, when slick passing produces a try for Wales. Though the contest ends in somewhat controversial fashion, with a late All Blacks equalizer ruled out, the single score clinches a deserved 3-0 victory for the home side.
The rest, as they say, is history. Pre-game anthems become the rage. And, having set the bar very high, it can be argued that still no country does them better than Wales. Indeed, to hear thousands of people singing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”, or Land of My Fathers, before an international rugby or soccer match is an awe-inspiring, almost religious experience.
And to think that a diminutive winger is responsible. Not only does he dot down the actual Welsh try in the 1905 classic, it is also he who initially suggests using the national anthem that day as a possible motivational tool.
The world has him to thank.
He is Teddy Morgan.