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I was enjoying my Australia Day breakfast yesterday when I heard Jess Mauboy’s rendition, from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, of Advance Australia Fair. It was mindblowing.
She started with the words of the anthem in the local Indigenous language of the peoples of Hawkesbury, Georges and Nepean rivers region. Then she followed with the (revised) verses sung in English, the traditional version.
Mauboy’s rendition, especially the opening Indigenous language verses, sounded perfect for an Australia in 2016 that is learning to understand and appreciate the special feature of our life and history in this land – its Aboriginal heritage.
Being a rugby man, I immediately thought of Mauboy’s rendition as perfect to be sung before Tests played by the Wallabies.
There is one obvious difficulty with this proposal and it relates to the wording of the Aboriginal version. Jess Mauboy is from the Northern Territory. She had to learn the language and the words of the version she sang on Australia Day as it was in a language she did not know.
If it was to be adopted by the Wallabies, there would have to be a consensus within all the different first nations about a standardised version. I am thinking here of what should be an initiative to incorporate Indigenous verses into the official anthem.
This is a matter that needs to be resolved, and with goodwill from all groups this should happen. But it may take some time. For the Wallabies, the Mauboy version is probably what should be used this season.
There has always been something too ‘white bread’ about the usual rendition of Advance Australia Fair before Tests. There is no mention, for instance, in the original anthem of the Indigenous peoples.
Some years ago, with this in mind, I approached John O’Neill, then chief executive of the ARU, about adding an Aboriginal component to the Wallabies pre-Test theatrics as a way of marking this unique aspect of the Australian experience.
Nothing came of his efforts. The obvious answer – a form of stylised Aboriginal dance, the equivalent of the haka – was too problematic, unfortunately.
Some history is needed here to understand why this was so.
When the Wallabies made their historic tour of the UK in 1908-09 they were required to perform an Aboriginal dance before matches.
The background to this was that the All Blacks had performed a haka to great enthusiasm during their tour of the UK and France in 1905-06.
Incidentally, as a response to the All Blacks haka before the Test against Wales, one of the local players started to sing the Welsh national anthem, Land of My Fathers. The rest of the players and then the vast crowd joined in the singing. And, thus, one of the iconic features of Welsh rugby was created.
The Springboks on their tour of the UK in 1906-07 were required to emulate the All Blacks’ haka, and performed a Zulu war dance before their matches, a ritual they continued into the 1920s.
So the Wallabies followed this practice on their tour and performed an Aboriginal dance before their matches.
The captain of the 1908 Wallabies was one of the great men in Australian rugby, Dr Herbert Moran. He understood that the dance was forced on his Wallabies by Australian rugby authorities who wanted a ‘native’ dance from the Wallabies as a form of entertainment for the crowd, like the haka.
But Dr Moran believed that the treatment of the Aborigines in his time was so disgraceful that he hid behind his players during the dance. And when he returned to Australia he forced the abolition of the dance from the Wallabies’ pre-match repertoire on later tours.
And with this abolition, there was an end to any reference in the Wallabies culture to the Indigenous people of Australia, even though they and their culture are as much a distinctive feature of Australia life as picking up the ball and running with it is for the rugby game.
South Africa (and the Springboks) have adjusted to the new South Africa after the release from prison of Nelson Mandela by incorporating verses of the national anthem in Zulu, Afrikaans and English.
You get a sense of the complexity and traditions of South Africa when this anthem is sung.
The New Zealand anthem sung before All Blacks matches starts off with verses sung in Maori.
So my modest proposal for the ARU is to get on the front foot and book Jess Mauboy to sing her version of Advance Australia Fair for the first Test in 2016 against England. Set a precedent.
And then use this version, with other singers if necessary, for all the other Tests, including the Wallabies’ attempt at the Grand Slam, plus France in November and December 2016 in Europe.