25 MARCH 2006, Page 53



Anthem is as anthem does. What with the rugby internationals last weekend and the ongoing Commonwealth Games, a mad medley of various national anthems has been grating around the airwaves. Some find them uplifting. For me, the jingoistic jingles jar, particularly as extended overture to the rugby when the camera, with ingratiating reverence, pans along the line of cauliflower-eared shaven heads which resembles a Dickensian identity parade at Tilbury and a last call for Magwitches bound for the colonies. Some players weep, others prefer the trance-like glare.

What, or which, is a national anthem these days? At Melbourne it’s been ‘Scotland the Brave’; at the rugby ‘Flower of Scotland’, a bland country-and-western-isles-type trill. During the Troubles the all-Ireland rugby team spurned any pre-match anthem. Now in Dublin they serenade themselves with two official salutes, the Gaelic anthem and the breezy ‘Ireland’s Call’ (‘Together standing tall, shoulder to shoulder’), plus a blast of ‘Molly Malone’ and ‘Fields of Athenry’ should they need a buck-up during the game itself. All four were in evidence, not only at the Twickenham rugger on 18 March but at Cheltenham’s shamrock Gold Cup greenwash on St Paddy’s day. For the Commonwealth Games it is only Northern Ireland, of course, and its peerless ‘Londonderry Air’, and I must admit to twice being totally overwhelmed by an emotional ‘Danny Boy’ wallow — when Mary Peters of the melon smile won the pentathlon at Christchurch in 1974 and lightweight leprechaun Barry McGuigan the boxing four years later at Edmonton.

The English have revved up a rousing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ at the Commonwealth, but it is ‘God Save the Queen’ for the rugby. Former army officer Will Carling always wanted a change to ‘I vow to thee, my country’. Heaven knows why the drearily diminuendo Southern spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ has caught on with the Barboured breed at Twickenham; no ruggerbugger knows the third line of it, let alone the fourth. Generally, the Welsh remain in good voice: can there be a single native down there who has not drunk in with their mother’s milk every word, chord and cadence of — as well as a few other ‘national’ hymns and arias from Max Boyce compositions to ‘Tinopolis’ tributes — their wondrous, swelling, choral homage ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’. It was first sung by a full-belt, full-house throng before kick-off at a Cardiff international match 100 winters ago when, after the band had played the official anthem ‘Men of Harlech’, the multitude of 45,000 spontaneously let rip with ‘Hen Wlad’ moments before kick-off in response to witnessing the New Zealanders’ warlike haka for the first time.

Judging by the tears and the breastbeating, their Cardiff anthem still means a lot to the men in red. Last year, I came across that fine little one-time Neath No. 10 Dai Parker, who unluckily missed a full Welsh cap because, in his prime, the fly-half factory was on full production. So imagine Dai’s enchantment, late in his career before Neath played a club game in Dublin at Greystones, when he heard the announcer order both teams to line up for the national anthems. Ah me, he whooped, at last he’d experience the legendary sensation: ‘I stood proudly to attention, the tears welled, and I could feel the hairs stiffen at the nape of my neck ... when out of the loudspeakers blared, oh dear, Tom Jones’s ruddy “Green, Green Grass of Home”.’