Oti the man to blame as 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' continues to roll
Published 13/03/2008 | 00:00
IF the sound of beered-up England supporters belting out 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' is an affront to your ears ... blame Chris Oti.
The Cambridge University student and Wasps winger was just 22 when he ran out to face Ireland at Twickenham on March 19, 1988 and was winning his second cap after making an unremarkable debut against Scotland two weeks previously at Murrayfield.
Ireland had a decent side, not least Oti's direct opponent Trevor Ringland and, with the likes of Michael Kiernan, Brendan Mullin, Donal Lenihan and Philip Matthews in their ranks, the Irish were expected to put it up to an English side who had lost to France and Wales and only beaten the Scots 9-6.
Ireland had just lost to Wales in their previous outing and made a couple of changes as a result.
The Shannon second row Mick Moylett was handed his first cap, Michael 'Magnum PI' Gibson was replaced by Willie Anderson at number eight and Hugo MacNeill returned at full back with Philip Danaher making way.
England had the bones of the side that would go on to dominate European rugby for the next six years with the key figures of Will Carling, Rob Andrew, Brian Moore and Dean Richards beginning to establish themselves as world class operators.
Ireland, with the benefit of a strong wind at their backs, led 3-0 at the break, courtesy of a Kiernan drop goal but England, despite losing their talented but injury-prone scrum half Nigel Melville, came out in the second period and ran riot.
Andrew started to move the ball wide and Oti, the first black player to play for England since James Peters in 1907, cut the Irish to shreds. Matching devastating speed with tremendous balance, Oti ran in a hat-trick of tries, with Rory Underwood helping himself to two.
The Irish players, unaccustomed to such humiliation in an era of tight, kicking dominated slog-fests, became a shambles. Meanwhile, the English fans, who had watched as their team failed to register a single try in their three previous outings, looked on in amazement at the exhibition of brilliant running rugby that now appeared before them.
One group of schoolboys could not contain their elation and burst into song after Oti ran in for his third.
'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot' is a gospel song that had been adopted by rugby players because they could accompany the lyrics with hand gestures, rude and otherwise.
Indeed, the tradition was to hum the last verse to place the focus on those gestures.
The schoolboys, reputedly from the well-heeled Benedectine public school of Douai Abbey, belted out the song with gusto and it was taken up the delirious Twickenham crowd -- it has been the English rugby anthem ever since England ran out 35-3 winners and the painfully shy Oti became something of an unwilling celebrity.
However, he would never hit such heights again.
He went on to score four tries against the minnows of Romania the following year but injury and loss of form meant he only won 13 caps for his country, the last of them coming at the 1991 World Cup against Italy when he was still only 26.
However, his achievement, on-field and off, was not forgotten and Oti's name was placed on Twickenham's Wall of Fame.
That match was seen as the launch pad for the period of England rugby dominance under Carling and Geoff Cooke that would see them win three Grand Slams and just fail to land the 1991 World Cup.
"I think that I contributed something else besides the tries that day," said Oti.
"There was a self-belief among the players.
"When we started scoring tries, they came so easily and the players responded to the way we tried to play in the second half.
" England went on to achieve greater things.
"As for my own career, I don't think I ever fulfilled my potential.
"I felt I could have done a lot better, but the hat-trick was a marvellous thing to have achieved."