GROWING up Bridgend in the 1970s and 80s it was always clear that it was a rugby town.

The town team was one of the best in Europe and gave the All Blacks a run for their money in 1978. They even beat Australia in 1981.

Every school played the game and frankly there was a real prejudice against football, or soccer as it was always referred to. I’ve played rugby (not at a great standard may I add) but never an organised game of football - which is no loss to the game. Football was perpetually seen as a game best played for fun rather than with any degree of seriousness.

I didn’t see a game of football live until I was in my late twenties. I don’t wear that as a badge of honour and I’ve made up for that many times since.

My father simply didn’t know anybody who followed the game and the football stadiums of the day had an evil reputation for trouble which didn’t make him enthusiastic about going.

What football I saw came from Match of the Day or from watching Welsh internationals which scandalously in those days often weren’t even broadcast live in their entirety even though England games always were.

The National Wales: JPR Williams leaves the field with a face injury sustained while playing for Bridgend against the New Zealand All Blacks at the Brewery Field in 1978. Picture: Huw Evans AgencyJPR Williams leaves the field with a face injury sustained while playing for Bridgend against the New Zealand All Blacks at the Brewery Field in 1978. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Football always seemed to take a back seat in the area that I grew up in.

Welsh internationals tended to come from the cities or from places in the north east of Wales with names we’d never heard before. Just to reassure readers from that part of Wales, I’ve long rectified that gap in my knowledge.

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We’re fortunate that through an accident of history that we have international sports teams in rugby and football. And no, I’m not going to do anything but celebrate that fact.

I would not for one millisecond contemplate a UK football or rugby team.

Those teams have been important for us in terms of our development as a nation.

In the nineteenth century we had precious little that we shared in common. Our language ceased to be spoken by the majority in 1901. Our legal system was abolished in 1542 and our laws with it.

The last Welsh banknotes were printed in 1908. If we hadn’t had our sports teams in the 19th century there’s an argument for saying we wouldn’t have seen ourselves as a nation in the 21st.

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Rugby has historically been the sport we were best at. Four Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals in this century have maintained the importance of the sport in the eyes of the Welsh public. It has kept our profile high in the rugby playing world and we are by far the most successful team per head of population in the northern hemisphere.

That success has generated a passion. Who can forget that day in March 2005 when 250,000 people came into Cardiff to celebrate or first Grand Slam for 27 years?

The National Wales: Wales fans in Bordeaux during Euro 2016. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans AgencyWales fans in Bordeaux during Euro 2016. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

Now we also have the most successful football teams we’ve ever had. The 2016 Euros did a huge amount for Wales’ profile. Getting to the semi-finals was a remarkable achievement and I remember the headlines in the European papers that talked about Wales.

For the first time it was possible to go to many countries, tell them you were Welsh and they would know where you were from. It did more to raise our profile than anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.

We stand on the cusp of our first World Cup since 1958 and for the women’s team the first ever and what’s been remarkable is the sheer passion that has accompanied the team’s progress.

For many years the atmosphere at Welsh football games could be timid. Four figure crowds, the anthem barely sung and little noise generated.

The National Wales: Dafydd Iwan performs Yma O Hyd before Wales World Cup play-off semi final victory over Austria. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans AgencyDafydd Iwan performs Yma O Hyd before Wales World Cup play-off semi final victory over Austria. Picture: Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

Last Thursday in the Austrian game you could barely hear yourself think. It started with Dafydd Iwan and moved on to our national anthem being sung without any musical accompaniment.

The whole 90 minutes was made up of passionate support that showed no hostility to the opposite supporters. They were welcomed and their anthem respected. Those supporters can be proud of themselves.

It pains me to say it but it was a bit different at the Wales-France rugby game during the Six Nations. Even though the crowd was twice as big the noise was far more muted.

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The WRU seemed to resort at one point to piped singing to rouse the supporters. It didn’t help that there were ten thousand empty seats in the ground. I’ve no doubt that passion will come back with success but in comparing the two matches, the football won hands down for atmosphere.

No doubt all this will restart that old debate about which is the national sport.

My reply to that is simple; it doesn’t matter.

There are diehards in both sets of supporters who will never watch the other game but the reality is that many supporters follow Welsh teams in both sports, a situation that certainly isn’t replicated in England or Scotland either I suspect.

What’s important is that we can celebrate success in every sport and be satisfied with the profile it gives us. Round ball or oval, I’ll support Wales every time.

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