I grew up loving rugby and hating football.

A year after I played my first match for Bridgend Athletic Under-8s our family moved to football-mad Flintshire where the likes of Gary Speed, Ian Rush, and even an English player called Michael Owen grew up. Barry Horne and former Wales manager Mike England both came from the same town I grew up in.

There was no escaping football here.

As a child I used my love of rugby as a means of identifying myself in opposition to those around me. It was what made me unique among my school friends (yes, I have been incredibly annoying for the entirety of my life).

I captained my age group junior team at Mold RFC for seven years, I was selected for North Wales (but the coach’s son played in the same position as me so I never got a look in; at least that’s what I tell other people).

What I’m trying to say is that this pains me to admit it, but it’s time for those of us who love rugby in Wales to face facts: rugby is not our national sport.

Let me be clear - we can still have rugby, we can still enjoy it, we can still derive a sense of pride from rugby, but the time where our national identity is reflected back to us through rugby is well and truly over. 

The contrast couldn’t be clearer. The last viral thing to happen at a Welsh rugby match was an idiot entering the field of play for a £20 bet.

Football has Dafydd Iwan singing along with the entire stadium with tears streaming down his face.

In the post-war world, Britain’s international links were with the former colonies. There were huge readjustments to many of these relationships in those decades which continue to today (I’m looking at you, republican Jamaica), but the closest international relationships were undoubtedly with countries in the Commonwealth. 

An infamous string of management failures by the Football Association of Wales meant that Welsh international football remained a niche interest at this time, but while rugby remained an amateur sport an amateur governance didn’t hinder the team’s success.

When Welsh rugby dominated the Five Nations in the 1970s, Welsh players packed out the Lions teams which toured Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This was a time to send a message to the world, or at least the world that we were connected to (including the rest of the UK), about who Wales was.

When Wales hosted the rugby World Cup in 1999, the conditions that created the links between Wales and rugby in the popular British consciousness were still in living memory for most people, which helped to cement the link between Wales and rugby. Welsh rugby experienced a boom - a new world-leading stadium and a first Grand Slam in 27 years - while trading off the cultural associations of yore.

Fast forward twenty years, though, and you’d now need to be at least 60 years old to remember what makes rugby Welsh, and what links Welshness to rugby.


The scarcity of international rugby in Wales - two or three home games a year in the Six Nations, then three or four matches in the autumn - gave the Welsh Rugby Union a culture of an event economy.

While rugby developed itself as an occasional theatre of elite level sport in Wales, football continued to be a part of people’s everyday lives. People went to see their local teams home and away, and watched Match of the Day each week.

It’s like former Wales football player and Professor of Public Policy, Laura McAllister has said previously: “football permeates the consciousness and the lives of Wales on a daily basis, whereas rugby really captures the imagination on Six Nations days”.

Part of this ongoing permeation and percolation of football culture has lead to the giant cultural impact of the FAW and Welsh football teams that has left my beloved rugby in the dust.

I spoke to Prof McAllister about what has happened and how Welsh football seems to have knocked rugby from its perch.

“The FAW has actively and deliberately pursued a stance of promoting national pride and encouraging wider consciousness”, she says. “In a way that only sport can. It has embraced our culture, our history and heritage, and especially our language as demonstrations of Welshness and therefore our uniqueness”.

I ask how it came to be: “Part personally driven by key individuals within the FAW and part by an organic ‘political’ mood amongst fans - driven by Wales away fans especially”.

Welsh football has actively engaged with its core audience, amplified voices and offered something to new and young fans (while keeping ticket prices below £50). Meanwhile the WRU has become a cargo cult dedicated to the sport it’s supposed to represent - male voice choirs singing “Delilah” couldn’t feel further detached from what’s important to Welsh people in 2022.

I could bore you with stats - there are twice as many registered football players as there are rugby players in Wales, and Cardiff City and Swansea both average over 17,000 fans at home games this season. Even fifth tier Wrexham get more than 8,000 compared to Welsh rugby, whose October derby match between Ospreys and Cardiff saw fewer than 6,000 attend.

But when it comes to defining a national sport, surely what it boils down to is what makes that sporting event unique to a nation. 

Is there anything that is uniquely Welsh about a day at the rugby? What happens in Cardiff on those days that couldn’t possibly happen in Manchester, or Nottingham, or Glasgow?

Nothing else has an impact on perceptions of Wales and Welshness right now the way the football team does. Football has permeated Wales’s day-to-day consciousness for decades, and now it’s having the events to back it up. Let’s enjoy it.

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