Feature: The Lions in song

When a slightly reluctant Kyle Sinckler heaved himself on to a creaking hotel chair in front of the entire 2017 British & Irish Lions touring party, cheering and clapping broke out across the room. [more]

Feature: The Lions in song

The England prop, on his first Lions Tour, was about to undergo an experience that many would pay good money to avoid: having to lead a room full of people in song.

But whilst Sinckler nervously prepared himself for a rendition of Jerusalem, the man standing alongside him, choirmaster Haydn James, knew that his rehearsal was proving a hit.

“With the reaction Kyle got from the whole squad, I thought ‘we’re in here’,” James recalls.

“The players were a bit out of their comfort zone. They’d come in from training, or a meeting, to a choir practice and they were a little reluctant. But for me, Kyle coming up to sing the English hymn Jerusalem was the moment when they all came together without any embarrassment. It was the ice-breaker.”

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The full Lions touring party – players, management, coaches, medical staff, analysts, and support staff – were rehearsing four songs, one from each nation, to be sung anytime, anywhere, at formal functions whilst decked in a blazer and tie, or in the changing rooms wearing the sweat, mud and blood of a match.

The songs selected were Highland Cathedral (representing Scotland), The Fields of Athenry (representing Ireland), Jerusalem (representing England), and Calon Lân (representing Wales).

The idea was the brainchild of head coach Warren Gatland, who felt the Lions needed to be culturally prepared for touring New Zealand.

Such was the success of James’s choir practices, the Lions were ready to debut two of the four songs in their repertoire, The Fields of Athenry and Highland Cathedral, at their farewell dinner in London, just a week after their first choir practice.

From there on the singing never really stopped. Calon Lân was chosen to be the first song performed on tour in response to the haka and Maori folk songs which welcomed the Lions upon landing at Auckland airport (an impromptu Lions rehearsal having been held whilst coming in to land).

As Wales’s nominated musical leader for the Tour, hooker Ken Owens was right at the front of the Lions choir for that performance.

He said: “I was probably the worst singer on the Tour but I am enthusiastic and I think they knew I wouldn’t shy away and that I’d be loud enough!

“The Welsh boys chose Calon Lân as it’s probably easier to learn than some of the other Welsh songs, and it’s got great rugby connections with it being one of the main songs sung on Wales matchdays.

“When you go to New Zealand they have their culture, and this allowed us to show a bit of our culture back, in an organised way so you look more respectful, rather than it just being ad hoc.

“But singing is also about enjoyment and we had a lot of fun learning the songs of the other nations and also learning what those songs meant to the other boys.

“It brought us together and gave us confidence. Even once the Tour was over and we were back in the hotel, having some beers, we were singing these songs.”

Throughout Lions history, the spirit of togetherness which a Lions Tour promotes has become even more revered than the results on the pitch. And so often music and singing has played a pivotal role in establishing that spirit.

On the 2013 Tour to Australia, it was folk-rock number Little Lion Man by Mumford & Sons which received the most airtime over the six-week Tour as the Lions won their first Test series in 16 years.

In 1997, famously, it was Britpop anthem Wonderwall by Oasis which fired the Lions to a 2-1 series win – their first in South Africa since 1974.

The song became an instant hit with the tourists after it was played in a Cape Town bar whilst the Lions celebrated a 38-21 victory over Western Province at the end of their first week.

For England centre Jeremy Guscott the song’s popularity was down to “it being one of celebration, and we had quite a lot to celebrate on that Tour!”.

Not least for Guscott himself, as the prince of centres would hit the winning drop goal in the crucial second Test in a brutal 18-15 victory in Durban.

Guscott had been on two Tours prior to 1997 – to New Zealand in 1993 and to Australia in 1989 – but he doesn’t recall music providing the same role in bringing the team together as it would do in 1997.

Ireland lock Donal Lenihan was captain of the midweek team in 1989 and agrees with Guscott’s assessment.

“We did have singsongs in ’89, we had a song book so we sung on the bus trips of course,” he said. “But it wasn’t as much as in 1983.

“On that Tour [to New Zealand – where the Lions lost the Test series 4-0], it was almost sacrosanct to have your time in the team room after a match to have a few beers and where everyone could sing a few songs.

“There were big personalities on that Tour. I remember the first time I was involved in the post-match singsong, Pricey [Wales front-rower Graham Price] did a couple of Buddy Holly numbers, his speciality.

“Now this was about the last fella you would expect – a big, grisly, hairy man, heart of the Pontypool front row, singing Buddy Holly! It just didn’t seem to fit but he commanded respect as he had a beautiful voice and was word perfect.

“Then there was Iain Milne, the massive Scottish tighthead, whose party piece was The Rattlin’ Bog. Now The Rattlin’ Bog has about 48 verses in it, ‘the bog in the tree, the tree in the hole, then the hole in bog’ and so on, and he had every word. But you were there asking yourself ‘would he ever get to the end of this bloody song!’.

“But it’s amazing now because, 30 or 40 years later, these things stick in your head and they transport you back in time.”

Lenihan – who was the Tour Manager on the 2001 Tour to Australia – also has fond memories of a Lions singalong after playing against the World XV at the Cardiff Arms Park in 1986 – a match organised following the cancellation of the Tour set for South Africa that summer, because of concerns over apartheid.

“I have no doubt that the one hour we spent with each other after that match in the privacy of our own hotel room with everybody singing, played a unique role in keeping that group together,” said Lenihan.

“We had a reunion six years ago and 16 of the 23 turned up, and we’re constantly in contact with each other, which is amazing for a group who were only together for one week of training, one match, and one hour afterwards.”

Jumping further back to the 1970s and the age of the three-month Lions Tour saw matches played every three or four days with lengthy travel in between.

To onlookers in New Zealand in 1971 and 1977 and South Africa in 1974, it must have seemed that the best rugby players from Britain and Ireland also happened to also be a travelling male voice choir.

“We sung at all times, in any language!” recalled Wales scrum-half Gareth Edwards, part of the legendary 1971 and 1974 Lions Tours, having cut his teeth on the 1968 Tour to South Africa

“Music was, without question, without trying, very much part of the overall experience. On a long coach journey on a dusty track, you would inevitably end up singing.

“It not only passed the time but it tied us together as we were away for a long time, without any chance of meeting up with your family, like you get now. So you’d think of your family and you would think of your friends whilst you sung.

“It was emotional at times and emotion played a huge part of our preparation in those days.”

Much like Warren Gatland in 2017, Carwyn James, the head coach for the 1971 Tour to New Zealand, encouraged a formal element to the singing and asked players from each nation to put forward three or four songs for the tourists to learn and to sing at official functions.

“Carwyn insisted that we were going to learn the songs properly and from that originated our ‘Sunday School’ practice, led by our choirmaster John Taylor,” added Edwards.

“It wasn’t compulsory but most of us went along. In a small town, way out of Auckland or Wellington, there was nothing more than a couple of pubs and a hotel, and on Sunday everything would shut down. So we would have choir practice.

“Sundays were travel days after playing on the Saturday. On Mondays we would often be invited to a reception at the Lord Mayor’s Parlour where we were and inevitably they would ask ‘whether the Lions would give us a song’. So we had to be quite organised.”

As choirmaster, Taylor was responsible for introducing the Beach Boys’ Sloop John B to the Lions repertoire.

The song wasn’t a hit from the off but affinity with it grew so much that it was sung on the pitch after the Test series was secured and again later in the year at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year when the Lions won the Team of the Year award.

“Sloop John B was great and we just loved it,” explained Edwards. “Whenever we have a reunion, which we do from time to time, John Taylor gets up and starts going ‘bam bam bam, bam bam bam’ and everyone falls into place as if time has stood still – it’s great.

“And many players had their own specialist song. I remember Willie John [McBride] did a wonderful Danny Boy and John Spencer can still give you Sosban Fach word perfect even now, although in his Yorkshire accent!”

Taylor recounts that Sloop John B was actually Welsh No.8 Mervyn Davies’ party piece but Taylor chose to teach it to the wider squad due to its simplicity and not everyone in the group being natural singers.

“We had quite a few people who couldn’t sing!” laughed Taylor. “The great thing about the song is its bass line.

“People like Arthur Lewis and John Dawes just went ‘bam bam bam’ all the way through. And there were half a dozen more who just did that.”

While Sloop John B was a relaxed social number, the formal catalogue of songs for the 1971 Lions included plenty of other belters.

There was the aforementioned folk song Sosban Fach, Scotland’s selection of Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?, Irish folk song The Wild Rover, whilst England’s choices varied with Jerusalem and On Ilkley Moor bar t’at both featuring.

And it wasn’t just songs from home. The French national anthem La Marseillaise and the Italian Eurovision entry from 1958, Volare, received airtime when the mood was right.

Whilst New Zealand’s culture inspired the Lions to learn Pōkarekare Ana, a traditional New Zealand love song, which the Lions would sing when leaving one town and heading for the next. It was also sung out on the pitch at Eden Park at the conclusion of the Test series.

Come 1974 and the Tour to South Africa, it was the turn of a Scottish song to take centre stage in Lions folklore.

Winger Billy Steele sung Flower of Scotland on one of the Lions’ cabaret nights. At the time it was a relatively obscure choice even for his fellow Scots on the Tour.

But it became a Tour hit, with the squad even adapting the lyrics so as not to offend the English contingent, editing out the words ‘proud Edward’s army’ and replacing them with ‘the Springbok army’.

“It was the first time I’d heard it,” Edwards said. “But it was this fabulous song and it was often the last song we sung before arriving at a match.”

The song even helped deliver a psychological blow to the Springboks ahead of the second Test in Pretoria.

Edwards recounts: “We had won the first Test down in Cape Town which shook South Africa as a country, let alone the Springboks.

“So they went to prepare for the second Test in a prison to get away from the glare of everybody, to avoid the newspapers, and to just concentrate on winning the second Test.

“When we approached the gates of Loftus Versfeld, we were only halfway through Flower of Scotland and were oblivious to the fact that the Springbok bus had arrived just before us. As we were only halfway through, we didn’t get out and instead stayed on to finish the song.

“Morne du Plessis [the Springbok flanker] told me many, many, many years later ‘Gareth,’ he said, ‘that killed us before we had even got on to the pitch. We’d been locked away for days on end and all of a sudden, you guys came in singing your heart out and not getting off until you were finished.’

“So, there are moments which you can pinpoint where it [singing] was a definite advantage. Although, we were oblivious to that at the time.”

Three years later, with Scottish lock Gordon Brown as choirmaster, the 1977 Lions even recorded their own album Singalong with the Lions at the Waitangi Hotel in New Zealand.

The album featured a now-familiar Lions balance between pop music and folk music – with songs of the era such as The Animals’ House of the Rising Sun, John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads, and Cliff Richard’s Summer Holiday, set alongside more traditional numbers Amazing Grace, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, and of course Flower of Scotland.

“On the pitch, the Lions were minutes away from drawing the series, but an injury-time try by Lawrie Knight in the fourth Test gave New Zealand the win and a 3-1 series victory.

There’s a strong case to be made for the peak of the Lions’ singing prowess – let alone their playing prowess – to have come in the 1970s.

Musically at least, there is a simple explanation to that. As the Lions had a singing superpower in their corner called Cliff Morgan.

The diminutive and fabled Welsh fly-half had toured once with the Lions in 1955, starring both on and off the pitch in a 2-2 drawn Test series.

In 1971 and again in 1974 he followed the Lions for the BBC as a commentator, carving out plenty of time in his schedule to put his significant musical talents to good use, and was often found playing the piano and singing along with the Lions in their ‘Sunday School’ practices.

“Cliff was always conscious not to intrude on the players, because he always felt it was their Tour, not his,” said Edwards. “But we would say ‘no Cliff, come on and sing with us’ and he would join us and play the piano as we practised.”

“On the ‘71 Tour, Cliff was an honorary member of the Sunday School,” added Taylor. “Cliff was such a great guy.

“He had a big ego but it wasn’t a pushy ego at all and he was very aware that he wasn’t one of the ’71 Lions but he was a great facilitator and source of singalong songs. He just loved to play the piano and sing.”

In Morgan’s playing days, he led the Lions’ in charming the South African public on the 1955 Tour through song.

As choirmaster he ensured that amongst the Lions’ repertoire was a four-part harmony in Afrikaans of Sarie Marais.

On arrival in Johannesburg, the full catalogue of songs was sung to a cheering crowd of locals leading to the Rand Daily Mail newspaper calling the tourists ‘the greatest team ever to visit South Africa’ even before they had played a game.

By the end of the Tour, Morgan’s scintillating play had cemented his status as a star of the game. His try in the first Test helped the Lions win a thrilling encounter 23-22 and his overall play in winning the third Test meant the Lions could win or draw the series in the fourth Test.

An ankle injury to Morgan ahead of the game hampered his preparations and, although he played, he couldn’t stop South Africa from levelling the series. But that didn’t dampen the South African media’s enthusiasm for Morgan’s talents, as they dubbed him ‘Morgan the Magnificent’.

Morgan’s musical influence on future Tours didn’t end in the 1970s, and neither with his death in 2013 aged 83.

As a close friend of the Lions’ 2017 choirmaster Haydn James – who conducted the choir at Morgan’s funeral – his influence on Lions Tours continued through to the most recent excursion.

“Cliff was a very dear friend,” said James. “And he was very much on my mind when I had my first rehearsal with the Lions in 2017.

“I actually mentioned him to the squad as well. I said something like ‘it’s great to see you all. We’re going to form a Lions choir, and follow a tradition that goes back to Cliff Morgan in 1955 and John Taylor in 1971.’

“And I mentioned the story of the Lions being hailed in South Africa as the ‘greatest team ever’ before even playing a game.”

With the 2021 Lions Tour now just over a year away, will an element of organised singing feature once again?

Jason Leonard, the chairman of the British and Irish Lions board, believes player buy-in is essential, something on which Morgan would undoubtedly agree.

“Anything like this in a team environment has got to have the team’s buy-in,” said Leonard, who went on three Lions Tours as a player in 1993, 1997 and 2001.

“It’s pointless ramming it down someone’s throat because they’re not going to buy in to it and they’re not going to sing well.

“But if it’s driven by some of the players who were on the 2017 Tour and they sit down with the management and the coaches and say ‘I think it’s a good idea’ then it’s definitely one of those things that can bring a squad together.”

South Africa – perhaps above all other nations – knows just how powerful a Lions team on song can be.

This article is part of the British & Irish Lions Freelance Writers Project.

Jack Zorab is a sports commentator, reporter and writer on rugby, tennis, athletics, gymnastics, taekwondo and many other sports. Formerly of Sportsbeat Press Agency in London, he has also written for the likes of Rugby Journal. You can follow Jack on Twitter (@Jack_Zorab) or LinkedIn

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