The history behind each national anthem in the Guinness Six Nations

Italy national anthem 2022
No Guinness Six Nations match is complete without the passion and verve of the national anthems before each clash commences.

No Guinness Six Nations match is complete without the passion and verve of the national anthems before each clash commences.

Rugby was the first to initiate the sporting ritual back in 1905, when Wales countered New Zealand’s Haka with a stirring rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before the ‘Match of the Century.’

The idea was a smash hit and a tradition was born that pervades every sporting event to this day.

From the League Two playoffs to the Olympic Games, the Super Bowl to the Super League Grand Final, every big occasion sees fans join together to harmonise in unison.

Each anthem has its own unique history, filled with peculiarities and quirks that get lost in all the noise and it’s high-time to unearth them once again.

England: God Save the King/Queen

The UK’s national anthem is so old, scholars still disagree over its origin.

The earliest version dates back to 1745, but similarities have been found in even earlier songs.

Composers John Bull, Henry Purcell and Henry Carey all lay claim to its invention, while there is even a theory the anthem evolved from the work of French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.

The melody itself is still used in the national anthem of Liechtenstein, as well as the former national songs of Switzerland and, curiously, the German and Russian Empires.

Technically, England does not have an official national anthem, and ‘God Save the Queen’ was played before Wales and Scotland rugby matches since 1968.

This wouldn’t last long with Wales dropping it in 1974 and Scotland later in 1990, and while the British national anthem takes precedent at Twickenham, Jerusalem is a firm fan favourite too.

France: La Marseillaise

The French national anthem is almost as old as the British, but its rise to popularity has quite the opposite message.

It was originally titled ‘Chant de guerre pour l’Armee du Rhin’ (“War Song for the Army of the Rhine”) because the mayor of Strasbourg requested a marching song for French troops in their war against Austria.

Amateur musician Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle responded with a piece written within one night back in 1792, a composition which would become popular with volunteer army units from Marseille.

Printed copies were handed out to soldiers during the French Revolution and no sooner was it decreed the republic’s national anthem was it repeatedly banned by Napoleon, Louis XVIII and Napoleon III.

The invigorating and inspiring tune was restored in 1879 and has remained a staple of French patriotism ever since.

Ireland: Amhrán na bhFiann – A Soldier’s Song and Ireland’s Call

For just over half a century Ireland played just one anthem before their home rugby matches: Amhrán na bhFiann or ‘A Soldier’s Song’.

Composed by Peadar Kearney in a Swiss Café in Dublin sometime between 1909 and 1910, the tune started to be used unofficially by the Irish Free State a dozen years later, when it was translated from English.

But by the 1990s there was call for an anthem that represented the entire island of Ireland, with James Last’s ‘The Rose of Tralee’ a last-minute replacement at the inaugural Rugby World Cup.

It did not make the grade however, and Irish musician Phil Coulter was tasked with creating an alternative for South Africa 1995.

The result was ‘Ireland’s Call’ which brought hooker Jerry Flannery to tears during a heart-wrenching recital at Croke Park in 2007.

Italy: Il Canto degli Italiani – ‘The Song of the Italians’

Best known as ‘Inno di Mameli’ (Mameli’s Hymn) or ‘Fratelli d’Italia’ (Brothers of Italy), this jaunty and vivacious track has been a crowd pleaser since its inception in 1847.

In Italy’s long fight for unification, Genoese student Goffredo Mameli quilled the lyrics, taking inspiration from the boisterous Marseillaise.

But in 1861 the ‘Marcia Reale’ (Royal March) was chosen as the fledgling nation’s official anthem, and it was not until the conclusion of the Second World War that Mameli’s Hymn usurped it.

Despite being sung for decades by Italian sportsmen and women, the soulful ballad was only officially designated the national anthem as late as December 2017.

Scotland: Flower of Scotland

Scotland have plenty of songs to choose from for its unofficial national anthem: Auld Lang Syne, Caledonia, Scotland the Brave to name a few.

But Flower of Scotland has special significance to the rugby team thanks to gritty winger Billy Steele.

The Bedford player was on tour with the British and Irish Lions in 1974 and Steele, the only Scot who knew the tune in the squad, stood up to sing it at a cabaret night.

The obscure 1960’s track by the Corries caught on quickly among the players and was first adopted for Scotland’s opener in the 1990 Championship.

The 21st century has seen the anthem rise to new heights, and by 2006 a poll of 10,000 people chose ‘Flower of Scotland’ as their preferred national anthem with 41% of the vote.

Wales: Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau – Land of my Fathers

“Imagine some 40,000 people singing their national anthem with all the fervour of which the Celtic heart is capable. It was the most impressive incident I have ever witnessed on a football field.”

This comment from New Zealand captain Dave Gallaher about the Welsh crowd’s performance in 1905 proves just how powerful the spontaneous chorus was at the time.

Except it wasn’t spontaneous at all; WRU selector Tom Williams was the first to posit the plan to respond to the All Blacks’ notorious Maori war dance.

The Western Mail spread the word in the approaching days, and right on cue a packed Cardiff Arms Park joined Teddy Morgan and co in belting out the refrain.

Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau became a popular tune in the Land of Song shortly after it was composed by Evan James and his son James in January 1856.

Two decades later the anthem gained national fame and by the time James James passed away in 1902, it was decided the father-and-son duo deserved immortality, with a statue of the pair unveiled in their native Pontypridd’s Ynysangharad Park in 1930.