Swing Low Sweet Chariot has been associated with grassroots rugby clubs for many decades. The song, when sung by England fans, takes on a new meaning of hope and support and it is understood that it first found favour as an England anthem at Twickenham Stadium in 1988.
England, trailing at half-time to Ireland in the final Five Nations game of the season, had been a team lacking in form and with disappointing results over the previous seasons. In the second half, however, their fortunes changed dramatically.
As England edged ahead with a try from Rory Underwood, a group of North Stand supporters from Market Bosworth RFC claim that they began to sing Swing Low, having regularly sang it in their rugby club for many years before. In addition, it is thought that a group from Douai Abbey, whose anthem was Swing Low, also sang the song at this match.
Soon England began to take control on the pitch. And with each score, more fans added their voices to the chorus of Swing Low ringing around the stadium. By the time wing Chris Oti scored the last try of his magnificent hat-trick, the entire home crowd joined in and an anthem was born. England finished victors, 35-3.
That match was the launchpad for a period of England rugby dominance under Will Carling and Geoff Cooke that would see them win three Grand Slams and just fail to land the 1991 World Cup.
Swing Low has featured ever since at Twickenham Stadium, a fans’ anthem creating a resounding 16th man, uniting supporters and driving the England team forward when they need it the most.
Originally a Gospel song, Swing Low is believed to have been adopted and sung by African slaves in 19th-century America, cementing its spiritual roots and offering a rallying message of escape. The song itself is well entrenched in popular culture. Over 60 versions have been released, including those by legendary artists such as Elvis, Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
In 1991, a version sang by the England players reached no. 16 in the UK charts, in 1995 Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s version made it to no. 15 and in 2003, when England won the Rugby World Cup, UB40 took the song to no. 15 in the charts.