RFU’s Tom Ilube ‘agonised’ over choice of Swing Low on Desert Island Discs
Tom Ilube, the first black chair of the Rugby Football Union, has included Swing Low, Sweet Chariot among his choices on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs despite controversy surrounding the song’s use at Twickenham due to its roots in slavery.
Ilube, who in August became the first black chair of a British national sporting organisation, listed the song among his eight tracks, admitting he “agonised” over the decision and that “people have different opinions” about it. He went on to explain how the death of his brother Jim in 2012 had played a key part in his decision, recalling how it evoked memories of standing together at Twickenham matches.
Before Ilube’s appointment, the RFU commissioned a review into the use of the song – as exclusively revealed by the Guardian – and while the union stopped short of banning supporters from singing it, the lyrics are no longer emblazoned on hoardings around the stadium nor on any merchandise.
The RFU also released a documentary in an effort to educate supporters about the song. Swing Low is considered to have been adopted as an English rugby anthem in the 1980s but it is believed to have been written by the American slave Wallace Willis around the 1860s.
Maro Itoje has previously said that supporters singing the song at Twickenham makes him feel “uncomfortable” while Ilube’s predecessor Andy Cosslett, as well as the RFU’s chief executive Bill Sweeney, had decided they would no longer sing it themselves. But explaining his decision, Ilube said: “It was a bit difficult. I love rugby and I’m chair of the Rugby Football Union, and the first black chair of a British national sports governing body and I’m extremely proud of that.
“People have different opinions about it, and there are two reasons why I had to choose it, even though I agonised about it. One was my elder brother Jim. He died in 2012 and we were very close. He was my mentor in everything, he handed his rugby boots down to me, I walked in his shoes, I played rugby in his boots. And then he died and it broke me, it really did.
“I really struggled. We used to stand on the stadium at Twickenham singing that song with 80,000 England fans and so, when I hear it, I see me and him standing on the stands.”