Rugby World Cup: A new national anthem?

A song about a washed-up poker player has become the unlikely anthem of England's resurgent rugby team. And if they lift the World Cup on Saturday, its silver-haired singer, Kenny Rogers, will be hailed as a national hero. Paul Vallely reports

Wednesday 17 October 2007 00:00 BST

Matt Stevens is a man of many parts. Tighthead prop for the England rugby union team. Graduate in politics and economics from the University of Bath. And, fans of Sharon Osbourne may recall, runner-up in ITV's 2006 X Factor: Battle of the Stars, the celebrity talent contest in which Ms Osbourne was his mentor.

Observant viewers may recall that he is also a competent guitarist. Indeed he was playing the guitar on the team coach on the way back from the stadium in which England had scored their glorious quarter-final triumph over the Australians a week and a half ago.

The song he strummed was a country and western standard made famous in the late Seventies by one of the genre's most recognisable figures, the now snowy-haired and white-bearded Kenny Rogers. It was called "The Gambler" and during the four weeks of the World Cup tournament has – according to contemporary legend, at least – been an essential pillar in a miraculous transformation in the fortunes of the England team, from a bedraggled outfit who were soundly drubbed by South Africa early on to gritty superheroes who bulldozed their way past the Aussies and the French into this weekend's final.

The magical heart of the spell the song casts is, apparently, its chorus. It comes, after the introductory admonition: "If you're gonna play the game/ boy, ya gotta learn to play it right". It then continues:

"You got to know when to hold'em,

Know when to fold'em,

Know when to walk away,

Know when to run."

In that piece of homespun hokum, we are told, lies the key to the decision by England's players to abandon the aspiration to play beautiful, flowing rugby – which was bringing them defeat – and switch to " winning ugly" by using their scrum to power-push their opponents into their own territory, from whence they could win with elegantly opportunist drop goals and penalties.

It worked. Knowing when to hold'em and when to fold'em (and when to boot the ball between the posts) became a central tactical consideration. The England forwards scrummed both Australia and France into the turf, allowing Jonny Wilkinson to kick for glory.

Today, "The Gambler" – first adopted by the squad after hearing Stevens play it on his guitar during evening sing-alongs – is even on the verge of returning to the UK charts. Last week, it was at number 70. This Sunday, according to a spokesman for the Official UK Charts Company: " there's a high chance it will hit the Top 40."

Should England win the Webb-Ellis Cup on Saturday, then Twickenham's Barbour-wearing masses (and the wider rugby-watching nation) are likely to adopt the song as a sort of unofficial national anthem. It will succeed "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" – the soundtrack to their 2003 win – as an all-purpose victory tune.

Already, the England players have embraced the lyrics. The song is now a key part of their pre-match build-up, and they even play it in the dressing room. Before the match in which they whopped the Australians, the whole team sang along. As soon as they returned triumphant from the pitch, "The Gambler" was straight on again.

It is not, of course, a ballad about rugby football. The signature song of Kenny Rogers – a country music legend or comfy middle-of-the-road redneck, depending upon your prejudices – is about a card-sharp. The man meets a young tyro on "a train bound for nowhere" – England's seeming destination at one point in the competition. Reading the young man's despondent face – "I can see you're out of aces" – he proffers the pivotal advice.

The song was a massive hit in the late Seventies for Rogers, a man who had celebrated a triumph of his own. Born in abject poverty in a slum in Houston, he grew up one of seven children in a single room with a carpenter father who rarely managed to earn more than $60 a week.

A talent for the lyrical storytelling that underpins country and western bought him fame and fortune. The multimillion selling album The Gambler won Rogers the 1979 Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. It was one of scores of awards for more than 70 hit records that took him routinely to the top of the country and pop charts, making him around that time perhaps the world's most popular male singer. For a period, Rogers was the embodiment of the American Dream.

The rags to riches experience has also taught him to recognise a bandwagon when he sees one. On being told of the England squad's dedication to his music he sent them a video message before the match against France. "I don't know a whole lot about rugby but it's a song that means a lot

to me and I'm mighty proud that you guys found something in it to be your inspiration," he said.

The victory over the Australians had "wrecked [the Aussies] for life, so good on you for doing that", he said. He then added, with slightly more venom than the game of rugby likes to endorse, "If you guys can't beat those French bastards this is a waste of time for all of us."

When they did win he sent them a further message of congratulation, with the promise that he would even give the team a private performance – but only if they beat South Africa in the final.


Kenny Rogers is, by his own admission, best known for two kinds of material – love songs and story songs. What makes country music great is that it tells a story, he says. "I've never considered myself a great singer, but I am a great storyteller," he modestly told Billboard magazine. His skill, he says, is choosing his material. He only writes a few of the songs himself. Most of his hits have come from songwriters like Mickey Newbury, Mac Davis, Tammy Wynette and Billy Sherrill, Barry Gibb and Lionel Richie.

"All great songs have multiple uses," he said of "The Gambler " this week. "Figuratively it's such a great philosophy of life in general. It's great they're using it for their theme song. Those are some tough guys that play rugby."

That combination of homespun philosophy and tough-guy stoicism is what characterises much of Rogers' music. Though he began his career playing jazz, doo-wop and folk (he was in the New Christy Minstrels for a while) it is in country and western that he has found his metier.

His first international hit, with his band Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, was "Ruby, don't Take your Love to Town". It was the era in which the Sixties was turning into the Seventies and Rogers was still something of a hippie, with long brown hair and an early earring, glam-rock outfits and pink sunglasses.

The Rogers formula was already established, with bright jaunty melodies beneath lyrics of cheap emotion. "It wasn't me that started that old crazy Asian war/ But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore/ And yes, it's true that I'm not the man I used to be/ Oh, Ruby I still need some company."

The song was about a disabled Vietnam vet, but the dumpty-dum of the music bypassed the brain and went straight for the gut. "It's hard to love a man, whose legs are bent and paralysed/ Oh Ruby don't take your love to town. "

There again it was in 1977 with Rogers' mammoth hit "Lucille". "You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille/ With four hungry children and a crop in the field..." It sold five million copies. Another international No 1 single, "Coward of the County" ran it close, with the story of a 10-year-old boy who vowed to his father, dying in jail, that he would walk away from trouble. "It won't mean you're weak if you turn the other cheek/ Son, you don't have to fight to be a man." Until, that is, the three local bullies picked on his girlfriend. War, abandonment and revenge, they were stories, all, of misunderstood interiority, and the struggle of the good to survive in a bad world.

And then there were the love songs. Corny, cheesy and aimed directly at the emotional solar plexus, they inspired sincerity and sniggering in equal measure. Songs like Rogers' earnest love declaration "Lady" (written by Lionel Ritchie) are regularly struck up at wedding receptions. "'I'm your knight in shining armour, and I love you' – what man wouldn't want to say that? What woman wouldn't want to hear it?" Rogers asked the Chicago Tribune. The lyrics of his songs have even been engraved on tombstones.

Music has brought Rogers a stardom that has only been enhanced as his sweetly raspy vocals have, over the years, given way to something more gravelly and yet more mellow. He sings against a background of acoustic guitar, always delivering hopeful messages of everyday life. He has topped the charts in the US alone for more than 420 weeks. He has duetted with Dolly Parton, Sheena Easton and Ray Charles. He has won Favourite Male Artist awards by the armful. He has been named by USA Today as America's "Favourite Singer Of All-Time".


Rogers has also had his time in the doldrums but then, as the England team will testify, haven't we all. In the 1990s he fell out of the charts but successfully diversified into made-for-TV movies – a series spawned by "The Gambler" became the longest running mini-series franchise on US television.

He launched himself as a photographer, publishing several books, and was invited to the White House to do a portrait of the then First Lady Hillary Clinton. In 1991, hoping to pay some bills, he opened a chain of chicken restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters, with one of the original developers of KFC. Soon it boasted more than 300 outlets in 10 countries.

Yet even his mid-life crises he did in public – the hair transplants, the weight problems, the liposuction, the sex chatline scandal (not that scandalous at all really). His public liked his candour. And the fact that he continued his low-profile philanthropic activities, setting up shelters for the homeless and hungry. And the fact that he kept on singing. Keeping on keeping on.

Even when the world took the mickey it did so with affection. A website called was set up featuring 1,000 photos of men who look like the white-bearded snowy-maned hero. It became a cult, but its tone was warm and playful, with tips on how to look like Kenny and places to spot Kenny lookalikes.

"Listening to Kenny Rogers is like eating your mom's meatloaf," wrote one fan. "He is country music's comfort food. You know what you're going to get every time, and you know you're going to like it."

In any case, the England squad will be pleased to hear, Rogers is the master of the comeback. He stuck to his record of charting hits in every one of the six decades of his professional life with a couple of recent records.

In 1999 he scored with a single called "The Greatest". Written by Don Schlitz, the chap who wrote "The Gambler", it was a song about life from a child's point of view, as looked at through a baseball game. You don't need a quote from the lyrics to get the "believe-in-yourself" point. It was as folksy and schmaltzy as the rest of the Kenny Rogers back catalogue. And he recorded it for his own newly-formed own record company, Dreamcatcher Entertainment, making it a nice little earner for the penniless child from Houston.


Today, Kenny Rogers remains on tip-top form. The absolute textbook indication of this fact came with his last huge hit "Buy Me a Rose" .

It is the story of a marriage grown cold, a relationship taken for granted and filled with unexpressed desires and hurts. The husband provides his wife with all the material comforts that America can afford but the woman, longs only for her man to "Buy me a rose/ Call me from work/ Open a door for me/ What would it hurt?" This is, Rogers sings, "a story of you and me".

It is easy to snigger at its sentimentality but the song, one US commentator put it, has "saved more marriages than Dr Phil [America's leading television clinical psychologist]". Websites are full of testimonies from couples prompted to marital renewal by the lyrics. That being the case, how far-fetched is the notion that Dr Rogers can turn around a rugby team?

There will be those jaded souls who suggest that England's recent transformation by country and western is just another example of the mad superstition of the sportsman. Wearing lucky underpants, eating the same meal before each match, always travelling by the same route to the stadium, such are the weird rituals in which our sporting heroes continue to put their faith. Is listening to Kenny Rogers any more bizarre?

If England win the World Cup at the weekend it might be because the last time South Africa beat England Jonny Wilkinson was not playing. Or it might be because, although the Springboks won their semi-final against Argentina quite comfortably, there is a sense that the dynamic of their performances has been weakening even as England's has been growing stronger. But why look to such prosaic explanations?

Isn't it just as likely that 15 men, good and true, will be inspired by the prospect of a private performance by that comfy country legend? They know they have to win to obtain it. "If you lose I'm going to disown you," he told them in his video message. "You'll never hear from me again. Have a good time!"

Kenny Rogers' verdict on his own career may offer more inspiration. " I've always been like a boomerang," he told an interviewer recently. "You can throw me away, but you can rest assured that I'm coming back.

"It's not necessarily about success for me. It's not about being the biggest star in the world. I think for all intents and purposes, if you go back to the peak of my career, I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish. To do that again doesn't excite me.

"But to just be there, and to be a force, and have people care about what you're doing, that's the greatest gift you can have." And England's rugby team can count on that already.

'The Gambler'

On a warm summer's evenin', on a train bound for nowhere,

I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.

So we took turns a-starin' out the window at the darkness,

'til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

He said: "Son, I've made a life out of readin' people's faces,

And knowin' what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.

So if you don't mind my sayin', I can see you're out of aces.

For a taste of your whiskey I'll give you some advice."

So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.

Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light. And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression. Said: "If you're gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.

There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done."

"Now ev'ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'

is knowin' what to throw away and knowing what to keep.

Cause evr'y hand's a winner and ev'ry hand's a loser,

And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep."

So when he'd finished speakin', he turned back towards the window,

crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.

And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.

But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep...

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.

Know when to walk away and know when to run.

You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table.

There'll be time enough for countin' when the dealin's done"

Kenny Rogers' good luck message to England, played in the dressing room before last Saturday's semi-final...

(sings chorus to "The Gambler")

Hey! Now that's a fight song for you, isn't it? You gotta love my shirt. Hey, I'm so excited for you guys and understand that was a real big win for you guys over Australia. I also understand they

will never get over that. They are wrecked for life. So good on ya for doin' that. But France is the big target. We've moved our sights from Australia to France, and if you guys can't beat those French bastards, this is a waste of time for all of us. So have a good time out there and know that we're thinking about you here in the States. One of the stations is carrying it here, and I'm gonna be right there, watching you guys. I wish you the very, very best of luck. Take care of yourselves, but if you lose I must tell ya... I'm gonna disown ya. You'll never hear from me again. Have a good time!

Dressing room anthems: songs that stirred other national sides

*'Three Lions', England football team, Euro 96

So successful was the Lightning Seeds' anthem (sung by Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, right) that even the Germans embraced it. Captain Jurgen Klinsmann admitted that his men sang the song after beating England in the semi-final, and, just to rub it in, as they paraded the trophy in Berlin. Still sung today by England fans everywhere.

* 'Wonderwall', British Lions tour of South Africa, 1997

Every drunk man's favourite belter and one of Britpop's defining anthems hit the sporting big time in 1997 when the triumphant British Lions team adopted it during the impromptu karaoke sessions that enlivened their tour of South Africa. It worked; the team, captained by the no-nonsense giant Martin Johnson, won a historic 2-1 victory in a nailbiting series that went to the wire. The song's role in the side's victory was immortalised in the hit behind-the-scenes documentary Living With Lions: The Complete Story, released two years later.

* 'Ring of Fire', England Cricket Tour of India, 2006

A reference to the wrong kind of runs that afflicted Flintoff and co's tour of India, the signature Johnny Cash (right) song fitted the bill as the team's unofficial anthem. Played in the dressing room on the final day of the third Test, it helped inspire the team to take seven wickets for 25 runs in 89 balls, thereby completing their first series victory on Indian soil for 21 years. "Ring of Fire" is also a hit among Liverpool fans, but without the lavatorial link.

To watch Kenny Rogers' The Gambler videos visit:

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