'Waltzing Matilda' ban angers Wallabies' fans

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The Independent Online

The ballad about a sheep thief who drowns in a pond embodies the Australian national spirit. Hence the chorus of outrage greeting news yesterday that the home crowd could be banned from singing "Waltzing Matilda" at the Rugby World Cup in Australia later this year.

The sport's governing body, the International Rugby Board (IRB), has ruled that only national anthems can be sung before matches at the six-week tournament. It has made an exception for the New Zealand team's haka war dance, which it deems culturally significant, but says that does not apply to "Waltzing Matilda".

The decision has raised hackles in Australia, where the song - based on a poem written by Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson in 1895 - has become an unofficial national anthem. It is routinely belted out at sporting events and players say that it fires them up for battle. The real anthem, "Advance Australia Fair", is a stilted, austere song and few people know the words beyond the first verse.

The Australian Rugby Union (ARU) said it would appeal to the IRB in the hope of persuading it to reconsider before the World Cup opens on 10 October. John O'Neill, chief executive of the ARU, dismissed the idea that "Waltzing Matilda" was not integral to Australian culture. "That shows breathtaking ignorance," he said.

John Howard, the Prime Minister, was similarly affronted. "Nations determine their culture, not other people,'' he said. He said of the ban: "I think it is very silly. I resent it. 'Waltzing Matilda' is deeply evocative of Australian culture. How can you justify trying to ban the singing of it, and allow other presentations which are evocative of the culture of other countries?''

The Australian players, who are known as the Wallabies, were also horrified by the ban. Toutai Kefu, the vice-captain, said: "It gets the crowd in a jovial mood, it creates a positive atmosphere.'' Another player, Joe Roff, said: "I think it's worth points to the team during a hard match.''

That the haka is to be permitted has added insult to injury, for the New Zealand All Blacks are the Wallabies' chief rivals. As the former Australian team coach Rod Macqueen said: "It's not just singing the song. It's the fact of getting parity with the All Blacks.''

"Waltzing Matilda" was sung by soldiers in the First World War trenches. John Williamson, a country singer who often leads sporting crowds in a rousing singalong, said: "That song is our number one song. It always has been and always will be."

Some observers suggested the move had been orchestrated by rival teams jealous of the Wallabies' success. Australia won the two previous World Cups.

Whether the ban can be enforced is questionable. The IRB has not explained how it will prevent a crowd of 80,000 from singing unaccompanied.