From the 2005 anthem Power of Four to Wonderwall and traditional standards, we look at the part music can play on the most famous rugby tour of all
The British & Irish Lions and Music
AS THE camera pans down the line, jaws are set, eyes are fixed. None of the British & Irish Lions players are singing.
As rugby’s most famous touring side, the Lions, prepare to tangle with the All Blacks, music swells. Power of Four, an anthem meant to arouse the passions of four very different nations – England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales – strains away while lips are locked.
In 2005, Clive Woodward wanted to bring “the best-prepared tour in the history of Lions rugby” to Kiwi shores. New Zealand had proven a crushing place to play for the Lions in the past, so why not try the spreadsheet approach, with Woodward famed for agonising over so many small details.
Players were given iPods for the tour, pre-loaded with songs – including Power of Four (the players had also received wristbands with the phrase on it earlier in the year: it was to be the official tour motto). They were expected to learn the lyrics but as was borne out in the action, only a few hardy fans could bring themselves to mouth along.
It was to be a disastrous tour. A howler in many respects, culminating in a clean sweep of Test wins for the All Blacks. But it all began with the best of intentions.
“Definitely more time (to work on the piece) would be extremely beneficial, not just to allow the track to become familiar but also from a writing perspective, exploring the varying anthems – how and why they work within their nations,” composer Neil Myers tells Rugby World. He had been approached by the Lions management to devise something to bind four fierce rivals together. But as he found, the expectation could never meet the reality.
He believes that having time to review form, instrumentation, structure, language and more would have helped, but, “In hindsight, however, I believe there wasn’t enough communication, with regards to the Lions’ anthem. There was some naivety on my part, but I also think that things would be addressed very differently these days. There would be far more research from all sides no doubt.
“I think in hindsight that probably more research from the Lions into the public’s perspective would have benefited.
“Anthems are a patriotic symbol and to have one piece of music that encompasses, portrays and empowers four nations is always going to be a big ask. From a writer’s point of view, this information would be invaluable in the approach, understanding what would be relevant and the expectation from fans who would ultimately add another dimension by being part of it.”
Music can be vital on tours. They can soundtrack treasured moments; set the beat for your whole experience. They can fuse with your memory of any up and down.
Perhaps Power of Four became the break-up song that triggers too many bad memories. It may have been doomed from conception. But tours need a score.
“If the Lions were successful in NZ in 2005 would the anthem have been kept?” Myers asks. “Probably not, but the poor tour that year was enough reason not to use it again.
“Maybe an anthem isn’t the solution…?”
WE OFTEN bundle memories of major milestones together. And like all the best nights out, the stories of those moments grow in the retelling – the colours, sights and smells can flare. The sound is so important, too.
Think of the biggest events from your formative years and it’s likely certain songs get tied in with them. It can be the case in sport.
Everyone remembers Three Lions by Baddiel and Skinner from 1996… What people rarely recall is that the official song for UEFA Euro ‘96 was We’re In This Together by Simply Red. A song just begins to occupy that space of memory, like an emotional anchor. Such memories can be hard to shift.
“The 2003 World Cup and the 2005 Lions tour were probably my first two big experiences of rugby fandom, in a big way,” says Jamie MacColl, guitarist for Bombay Bicycle Club. “And particularly the 2005 Lions tour, actually. It was one of the first times I remember experiencing rugby with friends and becoming very emotionally invested.”
What a heartbreaker of a start. “It should have put me off for life probably!” he laughs.
MacColl was a prop in his younger days but went on to play lock or back-row with UCS Old Boys and Saracens amateurs, before he decided the risk to his musician’s hands was too great, at 21. Before we talk, he listens back to the Power of Four. And then he sat trying to think of pop songs that encapsulated a major sporting event and then outlived it afterwards. As it turns out, there aren’t many that leap to the front of his mind.
Could it be that ‘organised fun’ is harder to love? Or maybe it’s the corporate gloss?
“Well that tour (2005) felt very corporate, in general,” MacColl muses. “So it serves to emphasise that. But I’d be interested to know what other musicians think about how you go about – lyrically – pleasing all four nations and remaining quite… chest-thumping.
“Because the effective Lions chants are basically one word said over and over again! Or the tune of Seven Nation Army, with ‘Maro Itoje’ (shouted over it). Which, to be honest, they’re not at risk of offending anyone, are they?
“I would say ‘No!’ to us ever taking on (writing a song for the team). But less because of the corporate side of it and more because I don’t think we’d do a very good job of it!
“What was the one with John Barnes, for Italia ‘90?” He is talking about World in Motion. “You probably want to involve the players in that so that they have some ownership of it. So that when you actually start the tour, it’s hard for them to say, ‘No, I don’t want anything to do with that!’ But there’s quite a lot of musical rugby players out there.”
One such group of artistic terrors is – or should that be was – the Glasgow Warriors band. Jam sessions and even gigs were part of the off-field lives of a core of Warriors, before the departure of player/scrum coach Petrus du Plessis and back-rower Callum Gibbons.
The former sends Rugby World a clip of an original guitar riff the group had been playing around with, wondering how best to pen an original song with it. But when it comes to the Lions, du Plessis suggests, running with something established might be the way to go.
He talks of a BBC Live Lounge version of Times Like These by the Foo Fighters, that an array of artists sang on during lockdown. Could a medley of performers sing the same track for the Lions?
If we look for modern candidates, the Lions squad of 2013 adopted Mumford & Sons’ Little Lion Man as their own song. Rugby World approached the band’s management for thoughts on their song being embraced by the player. However, they were unable to give comment.
“I think a kind of, slightly, tongue-in-cheek pop song would be much more effective (than an anthem),” MacColl says of an original track dedicated to the Lions.
“But then it’s a brand that take themselves quite seriously. And the Lions on the whole maybe don’t want to degrade that in any way. Though I don’t know – any of the behind-scenes stuff, or tour diaries, are always heavy on humour.
“I do think the Manic Street Preachers could do a good Lions song. He (James Dean Bradfield) is a very good lyricist, they’ve got some quite anthemic songs. They are there for every tour so they could play before every game!
“But it’s hard to predict what will resonate. You can’t force it. That sort of stuff (what fans fall in love with) has to be bottom up, rather than top down. For it to resonate.”
You cannot approach something so romantic with cynical intent. You cannot script a whole tour. Who the hell knows what fans and players will take to, musically. Each group is different for each tour and both the crowd and performers will be so diverse.
In 1997 the Lions players adopted Wonderwall by Oasis as their track. According to former Springboks centre Andre Snyman, Shosholoza by Ladysmith Black Mambazo could be heard everywhere from 1995 to 1999.
But things evolve, particularly in a nation as diverse as South Africa. In recent seasons we have seen the rise of the ‘Gwijo Squad’ – a passionate crowd of fans who sing traditional and spiritually significant African songs and who welcome South Africans of all languages and backgrounds to join in. Crowd response is a key tenet of their approach and the movement has been endorsed by Boks skipper Siya Kolisi.
Exploring your tradition through song could be the best way to tackle the musical conundrum.
YOU WILL know Wynne Evans. Watch any telly, and chances are high you will see him at some point, singing advice at you to “Go Compare”, while dressed in the familiar penguin suit of ‘Gio Compario’.
In 2004, opera singer Evans took to the pitch for a Wales-New Zealand contest, to directly respond to the haka. Decked out in Wales gear that he winces remembering as “like Lycra on me”, he strode out with a flag before belting out Bread of Heaven.
Evans has been told that it was around this time that the Welsh crowd got its singing mojo back, after a few years of figuring out how to get the Principality Stadium fizzing.
After singing at over 20 Internationals and helping the Wales team work on their harmonies – “to say they were rubbish would be an understatement!” – at the 2015 World Cup, at the behest of Ken Owens, Evans hopes upon hope that the Lions tour can go ahead as planned in South Africa.
Considering the anthem-shaped hole the Lions have, and the value of fan input, Evans adds: “If we can find music that works I think we really have to, because it is the part of it that I guess is missing a little bit.
“It is the sing-songs that you really want to happen. You see them in Home Nations games but maybe you don’t see them so much on the Lions tour. I don’t know what the answer is or what the song is, but it would be great if there was something, wouldn’t it?
“I think it’s probably a brilliant idea to have something that’s established– like the Welsh football team have with I Love You Baby. If you could find something like that, not even to put a twist on but just make it your song for the tour, or for the Lions permanently, then it would always be the Lions song.
“I’ve always been fascinated by how a chant gets started, or how a song gets started on the terraces. I’ve always thought it would be a great ambition to see if you could get your chant or something started. This is the challenge to anybody: to have that original thought, make it happen and get it sung on the terraces.”
Of course there are others who hope that an array of songs that are already beloved amongst each of the four nations should be used over and over – old standards of yours that can be sung by the other nations with gusto.
Haydn James is the Musical Director for the Welsh Rugby Union, who toured Australia twice, and South Africa and New Zealand too with Melody Music’s British & Irish Lions Male Choir. In 2017, Warren Gatland pulled him in to work with the Lions squad in camp.
For that tour four traditional songs from each nation were learnt by the group. They were Jerusalem, Calon Lan, Fields of Athenry and Highland Cathedral. And it was learning the latter, James recalls, that helped the team bond.
“I took the precaution of taking along about 20 young men, all of whom could sing,” James explains. “So they led the singing. And the style of the rehearsal, we’d had an hour’s rehearsal before I met the squad and then we would sing the song to the squad. Then we’d have a look at the words, drop the tune, and we’ll do it again. Then I’d turn to them, say ‘join us’, so they weren’t just singing alone.
“I think there was some hesitancy at first because it’s not what they used to doing. I mean, you did have guys like Ken Owens, who’d actually done my job with the Welsh team at one point. He was the choirmaster. But it needed an ice-breaker.
“When I did Highland Cathedral, to be honest I didn’t know it. I had to learn it in advance. So I did it and asked Greig Laidlaw if it was alright, if it was the right speed. He said, “Ah, no – it’s a wee bit slow.
“I asked ‘How should it go?’ He sang it and I said, ‘great. Come and do it for the boys.’
“I dragged him out to the front and all of a sudden the ice melted. Everybody was with him. I put him up on a chair, he sang it, we all sang it and then we did the same thing with Jerusalem. Kyle Sinckler was voted to be the choirmaster for England!
“I didn’t know how to handle it until Greig came out front. All of a sudden people cheered and clapped. We did it for all four songs. And then by the second night, they were really getting to know it.”
James would fly out to another camp, his last one in Ireland. By that stage he even tried to work in some harmonies…
With the current global situation, James is unsure what the next year will hold. He would jump at the chance to help the Lions again. He saw the way all the management, staff and players got stuck in and is certain of the bonding power of song.
We have seen it in the past. Tours were famously musical affairs in the Fifties. In 1971, John Taylor served as a choirmaster for renditions of Sloop John B as the team went on to conquer New Zealand.
In South Africa the very next tour, the ‘Invincibles’ adopted Flower of Scotland as their song. In the book Behind the Lions, Stewart McKinney is quoted on that tour: “Willie John (McBride) sang, Fergus Slattery sang, Billy Steele then sang, for the first time, Flower of Scotland, which became our tour song, way before the Scots took it up.”
It sounds like sharing your voice is an essential part of Lions tours. And whether or not there’s an anthem, a repertoire of treasured staples or a contemporary tune beloved by the group, the tour needs music.
Get those vocal cords warmed up for battering around South Africa…
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