'Hold On': now rugby league gets to grips with classical music

The only music that Leeds rugby league fans have been accustomed to in recent years is the occasional rendition of Tina Turner's "Simply the Best" and a tuneless chorus of "Barmy Army" from the terraces.

But times are changing. At Leeds Town Hall this weekend, fans will be treated to the premiere of the Leeds Rhinos' new anthem, the first classical composition to be written for a rugby league team.

Composed by Carl Davis, the Bafta-winning TV and film theme composer, the seven-minute piece includes musical representations of tackles ("aggressive with a lot of tension and very active," says Davis), tries and the sport's 10-yard rule. It even transmutes the Rhinos' fans favourite terrace chant into a section of classical music.

The piece, entitled "Hold On", shows rugby league is no longer about meat pies and cold terraces, says the Rhinos' chief executive, Gary Hetherington. "The idea of classical music at what most people see as a working-class sport might seem strange at first. But the profile of our crowd is changing. It is partly because of sponsorship and companies renting private boxes to entertain important clients, and because rugby league is appealing these days to a much wider audience." Davis, who had a long association with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, is best known for film and TV music such as his Emmy-winning theme tune for The World at War and the Bafta-winning music for The French Lieutenant's Woman.

He spent a day at the Rhinos' Headingley ground to prepare himself for the commission. He was struck by the sense of theatre as Leeds beat Salford City Reds, and was much taken by his walk from the changing room to the centre of the pitch via a "dark, long tunnel". It is a "great, triumphant moment" when the players finally face the pitch, he said.

"I found [the match] was full of music. There was continuous playing from a small jazz band high in the stands, singing and rhythmic shouting from the fans and a high degree of almost balletic movement during the game. It was also an incredible finale [which befitted] the ballet stage.

"I don't think I have written anything more easily because the stimulus was so great."

The title "Hold On" draws on the "steadfastness of spirit needed by the players", as in Kipling's immortal lines from "If".

"And so hold on when there is nothing in you/ Except the will which says to them, 'Hold on'."

It also relates to something more prosaic: rugby players' habit of holding on to each other. "Every photo I've seen [of the player] they are holding on to each other," Davis says.

The idea came from Matthew Simms, Leeds council's principal music officer, who asked Davis for "something like the opening of the Superman film theme" to commemorate the Super League and the World Club Challenge winning team.

"The idea is that the opening fanfare is the 'hook' which will stick in everyone's minds and the fans can recognise instantly," Mr Simms says. "The middle section could be adapted for a song and we hope the supporters will put their own words to it which they can sing from the terraces."

Kevin Sinfield, the team captain and Super League top-scorer last season seemed unperturbed by the suggestion that his team's performances would not be out of place on the ballet stage: "The players all think it's a great idea," he said.

Davis has not ruled out further sporting commissions. "There's always the Olympics in 2012," he said.

The town hall premiere of "Hold On" is at 7.30pm tomorrow. It will be played for the first time at a match in the Boxing Day derby againstBradford Bulls.

Scores to match the sporting mood

By Karl Mansfield

* The Welsh classical singer Katherine Jenkins has a deal with the Welsh Rugby Union to sing at all Wales's rugby matches. She has sung alongside Aled Jones and Bryn Terfel.

* The Three Tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras, staged their first concert at the Italia 90 World Cup football finals.

* Queens Park Rangers have chosen a song written by the British classical composer Michael Nyman to welcome the team onto the pitch at their home ground, Loftus Road. Nyman is a long-term fan of the west London team.

* Amici Forever, a five-strong classical group, sang the theme to the BBC's Olympic coverage. "Eternal Flame" was released in August last year. The group - Geoff Sewell, tenor, Jo Appleby, soprano, Tsakane Valentine, soprano, David Habbin, tenor, and Nick Garrett, bass baritone - also performed at the FA Cup final in May and at the English rugby union challenge cup final.

* The film Chariots of Fire was propelled by a powerful score by Vangelis. The 1981 film tells the tale of two men and their journey to the 1924 Olympics, tackling nationhood and class.