The Rugby Football Union (RFU) is to take a closer look at the singing of the 19th century spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, in the light of the recent raising of awareness of issue relating to racism due to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The song has been a staple of a trip to Twickenham since at least 1988, and many England players have spoken about how hearing gives them a huge lift.
England forward Maro Itoje, himself of African heritage, has described the background to the song as ‘complicated’.
It was believed to have been written in the 1860s by the Africa-American former slave Wallace Willis.
The RFU is reportedly sensitive to potential criticism that it may be guilty of cultural appropriation in its promotion of the song – the lyrics can be seen on various walls and hoardings all around Twickenham.
Sung during the Haka
The governing body urged fans to sing it during the Haka when the New Zealand team last faced England at Twickenham in 2018.
“The RFU has stated we need to do more to achieve diversity and we are determined to accelerate change and grow awareness,” an RFU spokesperson said.
“The Swing Low, Sweet Chariot song has long been part of the culture of rugby and is sung by many who have no awareness of its origins or sensitivities.
“We are reviewing its historical context and our role in educating fans to make informed decisions.”
Currently, many sections of British society are reviewing historical links to slavery. There has been no indication yet that fans would be prevented from singing the song altogether.
The RFU is also looking to increase diversity among its members. Genevieve Glover has been appointed as chair of the union’s diversity and inclusion implementation working group.
The RFU’s 14-strong board has never included a black person among its ranks. Of the 55 RFU council members only one – Maggie Alphonsi – is black.
The game’s governing body in England was also among the many sporting bodies that recently signed a statement that committed to tackling inequality within sport.
“The appalling death of George Floyd, the global protests that have followed and the powerful message of the Black Lives Matter movement has made every section of society take notice and confront an ugly truth,” said the statement.
Less than 10,000 at Twickenham
Meanwhile, the RFU has not ruled out hosting up to 40,000 fans for the autumn internationals, as long as the UK government relaxes its social distancing rules to one metre.
England currently have four matches pencilled in for the autumn. Currently, the rule for social distancing is two metres.
RFU chief executive, Bill Sweeney, believes that the two metre distance, which is more than many countries are currently insisting on, would reduce capacity at Twickenham to less than 10,000.
“With one metre, which is the World Health Organization’s guidance, you get close to 40,000, and we would like it to come down to that by the autumn,” said Sweeney.
“We would not increase the stadium capacity at the risk of safety, nor do anything contrary to government guidelines, but we want clarity on whether the two-metre rule is absolutely essential or is one metre possible.”