'God Defend New Zealand' - how it became one of New Zealand's national anthems

The Lions roared on the field, and their supporters roared in the stands - their enthusiasm for their national anthem putting Kiwis to shame.

So is it time for New Zealand to get a new national song? Before deciding, it might pay to know a bit about how 'God Defend New Zealand', once written off by Labour leader Andrew Little as a "dirge", became the anthem in the first place.

It began in the 1870s, when Irish-Kiwi Thomas Bracken wrote a poem.

"He ran a newspaper, a magazine called the Saturday Advertiser, and he ran a competition to get the music," University of Auckland Associate Professor Caroline Daley told The AM Show on Monday.

"It wasn't written as the national anthem. He wrote a poem, a five-verse poem."

The prize was 10 guineas - equivalent to around £10 - and won by schoolteacher John Joseph Woods, whose name was left off the sheet music. That wouldn't be the first mishap though.

"Bracken then gave Woods the right, Woods published it, made some money out of it but then lost the copyright to a commercial company," says Prof Daley. "It's full of intrigue - it's a lesson in small business mismanagement."

'God Defend New Zealand' was first performed in public at the opening of a railway between Dunedin and Lawrence by a group of schoolkids, but it took a long time for it to permeate the national consciousness.

The Government acquired the rights to it in 1940, and made it the "national hymn". It didn't become the official anthem until 1977 - and to this day, it shares that status with 'God Save the Queen'.

But despite its slow ascent, it was used at the Olympics as early as 1952, when Yvette Williams won the gold in the women's long jump.

"No one really knows how come, because it wasn't the official national anthem at that time," says Prof Daley.

Yvette Williams
Yvette Williams wins the 1952 gold medal for the long jump. Photo credit: NZOC

After it was adopted as an official anthem in the late 1970s, the Government lowered its key to make it easier for the public to sing. Contrary to popular belief, there was no need to commission a Māori version - it already existed, having been penned only two years after the original English.

It's not a direct translation of the English - in the 1870s, the discrepancies between the English and Māori versions of the Treaty were yet to serve as a warning.

The Māori version, for example, leaves out the baffling reference to the "Pacific's triple star". Prof Daley says to this day, no one knows what that means.

"Bracken never said. In Dunedin at the time there was some rabbit poison that was called Triple-Star brand, so who knows?"

God defend... the anthem? 

As for alternatives to 'God Defend New Zealand', Prof Daley says Kiwis' enthusiasm for the haka doesn't make it a suitable replacement.

"Haka are usually performed by men, so are we going to cut out the women? One of the things Woods did when he wrote the music was make it easy enough for schoolchildren and women to sing."

She's also not convinced Kiwis really want to spend $26 million on another referendum over what is essentially a symbol.

"Haven't we learned from the flag debacle? Surely we don't want to go there again."