It was the Swing Low wot did it…
The AB’s were lining up, in formation, all bloodcurdling yells and tongues out, and we were singing. Nothing disrespectful, mind, just the Twickenham anthem, deep, sonorous, surprisingly tuneful and all the better for not being accompanied by some diva in a long dress. So the haka didn’t work its magic this time, and Piri, Richie and the boys must have been a little riled by the manically grinning Manu Tuilagi opposite them – “I accept your challenge, now let’s play some rugby, bro’”, is what he later said he was thinking…For most opposing fans, Swing Low is the essence of why they love to beat England above any other side – “You can stuff your chariots up your arse” is a favourite counter in Edinburgh or Cardiff. Somehow it epitomises everything they dislike about England, haughty Twickenham man baying it out in his Barbour, a whiff of the ‘mother country’ arrogance that they suspect is never far from the surface.
Yet the song has its origins in the singsongs that were once commonplace at every rugby club, and especially in the watering holes around South West London: back in the sixties and seventies, it was a perennial favourite when we gathered after a match in the cavernous bars of the old Twickenham, fuggy, smoky and damp. We were singing for solace then, for England were almost always losers, easy meat for the Welsh wizards, the Gallic magicians of France, and of course those rare visitors to our shores, the mighty All Blacks….
The Sweet Chariot first made its transition onto the terraces just as they were being taken down to make way for the new Twickenham, first when Chris Oti scored a hat-trick against the Irish in 1988, and later that year we roared it out when Will Carling and his London Division and then England sides sensationally beat Australia. Believe me, Swing Low as a song of triumph had not existed before then, and most of us fans of the old school probably think it should remain in the locker for most of the match, or until there’s something really worth celebrating. Which is why its full-throated appearance during the haka was so special, because we all sung it with real feeling, almost as if we knew what was going to happen.
Just give us a bit of luck, we’d said before the game, we were really close against Australia, even closer against the Saffers. But how could we believe that against the AB’s, when Dan and Richie between them had more caps than the entire callow bunch ranged against them? How could the blundering, penalty conceding English forwards cope against the finely tuned, smoothly whirring magnificent machine of the AB pack: and as for the backs…stuttering, predictable, devoid of pace and guile, please, don’t let’s even go there…losers again, just like in the old days.
And yet, and yet…we sung, and those boys in white tore into them, again, and again, and again, controlled passion, playing at pace, not letting the Blacks settle for a minute. We moaned at the kicking game, ‘don’t keep giving it to them’, but we gradually realised there was method to it, we were closing them, we were choking them. They were making mistakes, Carter was missing the easiest of kicks, yet we were managing the scoreboard, each incursion into enemy territory seemingly rewarded with points. Bloody hell, it’s half time and we’ve nilled them!
But now, now they’re going to come after us, just you wait, they’ll score tries, they have to, it’s what they do, world champions, full of character, experience, they know how to get it done. Yup, 15-14, here we go, it was nice while it lasted…what, no…it can’t be! One try, two tries, I just don’t believe it, get under the posts Manu son, don’t provoke them, they’ll come back – that’s three, and a conversion…NURSE, WAKE ME UP…please? You mean it’s for real? We won? We did…
Hats off to Stuart Lancaster, a good man, plays the game the right way, he won’t get carried away (‘I’m a Cumbrian’, he said afterwards, and that says it all). He’s built a team over the past year, of coaches and players who share the same values, who believe in themselves and each other, even though they’ve all ‘copped it’ from the English press in spades, every one of them, over the past few weeks. Well, we were close to the Boks and the Wallabies. And we hammered the All Blacks.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, Coming Forth to Carry Me Home….