The Rugby World Cup: The Most Popular Anthems and the Stories Behind Them
The Rugby World Cup 2023 is nearing the end of the pool stages, which will see eight teams advancing to the knockout stage. Pressure to qualify is building as England, Wales, and New Zealand are the only three teams with a guaranteed spot in the quarter-finals.
While the squads are wrapped up in training, dealing with injuries and devising their winning strategies, fans are caught up in something equally important to them but not strictly sport-related; they wholeheartedly belt out the national anthem before every game. In fact, the French Rugby World Cup organisers faced criticism for their decision to replace the classic anthems typically played before each game with versions sung by children’s choirs. This infuriated the fans so the new renditions were scrapped, but this controversy sparked our interest. Therefore our team at SportingPedia decided to see which national anthems and dances are the most popular at rugby matches.
We looked at YouTube and TikTok videos of anthems being sung at rugby games and ranked these compositions based on their popularity on the two platforms.
Why Are National Anthems So Important to Rugby Fans?
The Fans’ reaction to the choir versions of the French national anthem shows the cultural significance of these compositions. So, why are they so important to rugby fans? These hymns are not just symbols of a nation’s unity and strength, they represent something more to them. We need to look at the meaning behind the lyrics, and the stories of how the songs were created, in order to understand why so many people have objected to something that seems so innocent: their national anthem, sung by a group of children.
Many rugby fans found the new renditions “lifeless”, “weak”, and “butchered”, and that’s because acapella anthems are difficult to sing along with; especially in a stadium with thousands of people and poor acoustics. And what’s more, the tempo was different, further confusing those trying to sing their anthem with the choir. It should have worked though, because a stadium full of singing people is essentially a gigantic choir, isn’t it?
The giant choir theory was clearly demonstrated after current rugby leader Ireland’s 13-8 victory over South Africa on September 23rd, when the famous Cranberries song “Zombie” was played over the speakers at the Stade de France. The Irish fans, and even some of the Irish players, started singing along with the controversial song. It was written in 1994 by Dolores O’Riordan as a response to the violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In particular, it was written after the IRA bombing of Warrington in 1993 in which two children, Tim Parry, 12, and Jonathan Ball, 3, tragically lost their lives.
Many believe that “Zombie” and the lyrics “it’s not me, it’s not my family” suggest a pro-British, or anti-Irish, ideology. O’Riordan herself said in many interviews during her life that she never intended the song to be against one side or the other. Instead, it is against violence of any kind and by anyone.
To look at the current popularity of different national anthems among rugby fans, we picked one YouTube video and one TikTok for each national team. For the YouTube videos, we chose the latest national anthem videos from the Rugby World Cup channel or videos uploaded by the official Six Nations channel. We also looked at the most viewed TikToks of players and fans singing their anthems before a rugby game.
Italy – “Il Canto degli Italiani” (1847), by Goffredo Mameli (lyrics) and Michele Novaro (music)
The patriotic song “Il Canto degli Italiani”, was originally written as a poem by a young Genoese Goffredo Mameli in 1847, who was inspired by the French Revolution and France’s anthem “La Marseillaise”. With its clear republican and Jacobin messages, “Fratelli d’Italia”, as it is also known, became very popular during the First Italian War of Independence, and then again during the unification of Italy.
The new unified country, however, could not have a republican hymn as its national anthem as it was a monarchy, so another composition was chosen. Decades later, after the end of fascism and World War II, many believed “Il Canto degli Italiani” should have become the Italy’s new anthem. This finally happened in 2017, when the song was at last recognised as the official national anthem.
Today, it is among the most recognisable national anthems in the world, and combined the two videos we saw are at the brink of reaching 37 million views (the TikTok also has 207k likes). This makes it the most popular rugby anthem on our list.
Ireland – “Ireland’s Call” (1995) by Phil Coulter
Most rugby fans have probably heard the beautiful song “Ireland’s Call” sung by fans and players before each game, but few non-Irish fans knew that this is not actually Ireland’s national anthem. The official anthem “Amhrán na bhFiann” is rarely played at sporting events, instead the especially composed “Ireland’s Call” by Irish musician Philip Coulter is generally favoured. With more than 15.6 million views for the two videos on YouTube and TikTok, this is the second-most popular pre-game anthem in rugby.
In 1995, Coulter was commissioned by the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) to write a politically neutral anthem for the rugby team, which represented both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Playing the Irish national anthem is widely seen as too nationalist, and as some of the players were from Northern Ireland, it was considered inappropriate according to the IRFU. Today, “Amhrán na bhFiann”, which translates as “A Soldier’s Song” is only played at home games, while “Ireland’s Call” is used outside of Éire. And it’s not only used by the rugby team, but by the national hockey and cricket teams as well.
France – “La Marseillaise” (1792) by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle
One of the world’s most famous national anthems, “La Marseillaise”, is also one of the oldest still in use, although the original title “Chant de guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin” was shortened. And with combined TikTok and YouTube views for just two videos amounting to 9.6 million, it is the third most popular national anthem among rugby fans. Before it was changed, the title translated as, “War Song for the Army of the Rhine”, and it was written as a patriotic song to rally the troops. The Rhine Army was one of the main revolutionary armies at the end of the 18th century, during the French Revolution.
In April 1792, army officer and freemason, Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, was invited to a dinner at the home of the mayor of Strasbourg and ‘worshipful master’ of the local masonic lodge, baron Philippe-Frédéric de Dietrich. Lisle was encouraged to write the song and so he did, dedicating it to Marshal Nicolas Luckner, another freemason who was Bavarian but in French service at the time. Luckner, who rose to become the Marshal of France in 1791, was later sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and died by the guillotine only 3 years later. The song about his army, however, has been an inspiration to many revolutionaries and is now sung by millions, especially at rugby games.
New Zealand – Haka
New Zealand is one of only two countries in the world, the other being Denmark, to have two official national anthems: “God Defend New Zealand” and “God Save the King”. And at sporting events, “God Defend New Zealand” is usually preferred. It was first written as a poem but music was later added, as well as lyrics in the Māori language, although with a slightly different meaning.
What the All Blacks are famous for, however, is the Haka they perform before every international game. The traditional Māori dance is used to challenge and intimidate the opponent, and is performed by all players in the squad, regardless of their ethnic background. By analysing only two Haka videos (this is the TikTok video), we estimate that this is the fourth most popular pre-game tradition in rugby union. Moreover, it is the most iconic dance in rugby, or in any sport in general.
Tonga – Sipi Tau
The Polynesian nation of Tonga has a proud rugby union team, which has played eight times at the Rugby World Cup. Their national anthem “Ko e fasi ʻo e tuʻi ʻo e ʻOtu Tonga”, which translates to “Song of the king of the Tonga Islands”, and is also known as “Fasi fakafonua” or “National Song”, is played before every game. However, just like several other Pacific nations, Tonga also has a traditional dance known as Sipi Tau.
Sipi Tau is often mistakenly referred to as a Haka, but the two dances belong to different nations. Similarly, Fiji has a pre-game dance called Cibi, while Samoa’s traditional dance is known as Siva Tau. In 2003, Tonga’s rugby team faced New Zealand at the Rugby World Cup and their match will in go down in history because of the iconic moment when the Tongan players performed Sipi Tau, and the All Blacks showed off their Haka at the same time.
Within just two days after being uploaded on YouTube, the Sipi Tau challenge against the South African team gathered more than 135,000 views. The Tongan tradition makes it to the 5th position in the ranking.
Scotland – “Flower of Scotland” (1966-1967) by Roy Williamson
Scotland does not have an official national anthem but at sporting events, and on various other special occasions, “Flower of Scotland” is typically played. The song was written in English in the 1960s by Roy Williamson of the folk group The Corries. Interestingly, there is only one Scots word in the original lyrics (“Tae”), but that doesn’t make it any less patriotic. The bagpipes as seen here are also unmatched. This is probably one of the reasons why the “Flower of Scotland” is popular, ranking 6th on our list.
The song tells the story of the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, during the First War of Scottish Independence. Robert the Bruce, who led a Scottish army of only 6,000 men, managed to defeat the army of King Edward II of England, which is believed to have been between 20,000 and 25,000 strong. This decisive and heroic victory, however, did not guarantee Scotland’s independence in the coming centuries, which is also referenced in the anthem.
South Africa – National Anthem of South Africa (1897-1995)
The national anthem of South Africa is one of the most unique compositions played at sporting events. Interestingly it has no official title, perhaps because it is a combination of two songs, with lyrics sung in five different languages. Following the end of the apartheid in the 1990s, it was constructed with verses from the country’s apartheid-era anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”, which translates to “The Voice of South Africa”, and “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, or “God Bless Africa” in English. The latter, a Christian hymn in the Xhosa language, had been used by the anti-apartheid movement for decades and was later adopted as a second official anthem.
By combining the two songs, President Nelson Mandela wanted to show the people that reconciliation and unity between the black and white portions of society was possible. His ideas, which have inspired millions, can be seen reflected in this song. The origin and race of the singer do not matter, and the lyrics are always sung in the five most commonly used languages in South Africa: Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans, and English.
Japan – “Kimigayo” (794–1185)
Japan’s national anthem “Kimigayo” (君が代) is a slow, solemn composition, and is quite unlike most of the national anthems on this list, which are slightly faster, more pompous, and quite explosive near the end. When “Kimigayo” is played on official occasions and at sporting events, it is perceived as a beautiful, melancholic song by foreign nationals. And it is, of course, sung proudly by all Japanese players and spectators at rugby matches.
Its title is usually translated as “His Imperial Majesty’s Reign”, and the lyrics include only one verse. These lyrics originate from an ancient poem written by an unnamed author during the Heian period (794–1185), while the music was added much later, in the 19th century. The YouTube video we saw currently has more than 920,000 views, making “Kimigayo” the 8th most popular anthem among rugby fans.
Wales – “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (1856) by James and Evan James
Known in English as “Land of My Fathers”, Wales’ unofficial anthem “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” was the first national anthem to be sung before a sporting event. It was written by Welsh harpist Evan James, and his son James James, in 1856, and was originally played in a much faster tempo at dances. Over a few decades, it gained great popularity and in 1899 it became one of the first recorded Welsh-language songs. With over 440,000 views for the YouTube and TikTok video, the song ranks 9th on this list.
The original All Blacks might be at least partially responsible for elevating the status of this tune. In 1905, New Zealand’s first touring rugby union team, who started every game by challenging their opponents with a traditional Māori dance known as Haka, played against Wales. As a response to the Haka, Welsh player Teddy Morgan started to sing the anthem, encouraging the crowd to sing along. And this is when the tradition of singing national anthems before every big sporting event began.
England – “God Save the King” (1745)
Last on the list, with roughly 150,000 views combined for the YouTube and TikTok videos, is “God Save the King” sung by the English rugby team. Just like the other countries within the United Kingdom, England has no official national anthem of its own. Instead, the UK’s national anthem “God Save the King” is usually played before sporting events where the national team is playing. Of course, the alternative “God Save the Queen” is used when the monarch is female. Cricket fans however, have opted for “Jerusalem” instead to be played before their matches, and there is some debate among the English as to which should be made official.
Interestingly, despite claims that the song might have been written by composer John Bull, it is still unclear who actually wrote it, or even when it was written. The tune is similar to many other songs, including those of plainchant melodies, while the words have been changed multiple times over the years.