Rugby is regarded as our national sport by many people in and outside Wales, in spite of the fact that there are more football players and fans in the country than those who play or follow rugby. But all over the world, Wales is seen as being synonymous with rugby union. Why is this?
These days both sports are professional, with a strong commercial imperative. They have a product to sell, and that means getting bums on seats and selling merchandise. Success on the pitch brings popularity and revenue for both games, but this wasn’t always the case.
Until the mid-1990s, rugby was still an amateur game. There were always stories about car-park takings finding their way into the boots of star players on a Saturday afternoon, but the official line was that rugby union players could not make money from playing, or even talking or writing about their sport.
This meant that rugby players had to make their living in a day job, often at the local pit or steel works, sometimes the local school or doctor’s surgery. As a consequence, rugby’s international stars were accessible. They rubbed shoulders with their fans in workplaces, pubs, village streets and chapels. They remained “one of us.”
How has rugby union managed to maintain its popularity and status in Wales when there has always been so much more money in football? Because Welsh rugby has punched above its weight.
Wales is truly the mouse that roared. We’ve always had fewer registered clubs and players than the other major rugby nations, and we’re smaller in terms of overall population. In spite of that, we’ve sustained several long periods of success and dominance, notably in the 1970s, when we captured four Triple Crowns and three Grand Slams.
During the 70s, more than any other time before or since, the Welsh rugby team were woven into the fabric of our society, and they have remained there to this day. JPR, Gerald, Barry, Phil, Grav… the list goes on. These men were and still are folk heroes who stand taller than politicians, business leaders, singers, actors and other figures in Welsh life.
The seventies were a time when Welsh football wasn’t doing too badly either! For a proud, small nation like Wales, the feeling that you were the equal, if not the better of your neighbours, was very strong. It was the Bread of Heaven that fed us. There was nothing better than going in to work, or school, on a Monday morning, having beaten England at the weekend. It turned clouds into blue skies. And we were able to do it every year.
In the past decade Welsh rugby has experienced another golden era, with three Grand Slams and a Rugby World Cup semi-final appearance to our credit. This year’s triumphant British Lions were Welsh to the core. We’ve been able to thumb our noses at the people on the other side of the Severn Bridge since 2003.
With the current crop of players still in their prime, it looks as if we’ll be able to continue doing so for years to come. This is a fantastic feeling for those of us who remember the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, when we were routinely slaughtered by those buggers in the white shirts with the red roses on them.
In spite of a brief resurgence in the fortunes of the national football team when Mark Hughes was manager in the early 2000s, the round ball game has had to wait decades for the dawn of a new era of success. Swansea City’s promotion to the English Premier League in 2011 was the beginning, and it looks like it will continue now that Cardiff have joined them. This new success is definitely no flash in the pan, and it’s backed by serious money and dedicated fans.
We already know that our recent rugby success is no one-hit-wonder. This time rugby is on a level playing field with football, a professional game reaping the rewards of success. Many people are concerned that there isn’t room for two successful sports in a country as small as Wales. They feel that the resurgence of the round ball will be to the detriment of the oval ball.
I’m not so sure. To the Welsh, it doesn’t matter what sport it is, if we’re winning, then that means we’re punching above our weight, and we love that feeling; it makes us proud.