When people think of Wales as being rugby mad, it’s on metrics that are ethereal. It’s the immeasurable bits of rugby that contribute to Welshness, because on paper rugby in Wales is falling short.

The United Rugby Championship, playing its first season under the new branding and in partnership with Jay Z’s Roc Nation, is the elite domestic rugby league for five different countries.

It sounds like a big deal, it should be a big deal, but the facts and figures from a Welsh perspective don’t back it up.

Average home attendance for Welsh teams in the United Rugby Championship for the 2021-22 season was just under 6,400. For context, Cardiff City’s average attendance last year, in a season that saw them flirt with relegation at times, was just shy of 19,000.

The National Wales: The Bluebirds celebrate a goal in front of thousands of fans at the Cardiff City Stadium. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyThe Bluebirds celebrate a goal in front of thousands of fans at the Cardiff City Stadium. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

Those quantifiable numbers just don’t match the qualitative sense that Welsh people have around rugby.

The Dragons rugby team share their home at Rodney Parade with Newport County AFC. While the Dragons play in a top flight international league, Newport County are in the fourth level of English football’s system.

There shouldn’t be any competition as far as their support goes, after all, Wales is rugby mad and there’s a massive local population. That doesn’t even go into the issue of supply - the Dragons only had nine home games last year compared to the seemingly over-abundant offer of 25 County home games.

But the Dragons average attendance of 5,111 is barely more than County’s season average of 4,333.

So why is it that we consider rugby to be such a big part of who we are?

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It’s about nationhood, and identity. It’s not about tangible things like attendance figures, it’s about a vibe.

The foundations of that vibe have been well and truly shaken over the last few years by Welsh football fans and the difficult-to-avoid comparisons between the WRU and the FAW, but the relationship between Welshness and rugby persists.

Ofcom’s most recently available figures show that two of the top 10 most watched TV programmes in Wales in 2020 - a year when there wasn’t much else to do but watch TV - were Six Nations games. Wales’s match against Italy somehow captured 72.2% of the entire TV audience in Wales.

World Rugby see the seven-a-side game as a means to grow the sport globally. It’s a streamlined version of the full game where smaller nations outside of the traditional strongholds can compete, and its fast and open play is easy on the eye. 

This ambassadorial version of the sport has opened doors for the game in places it’s never been seen before thanks to its inclusion at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games. The USA’s Carlin Isles has gone viral repeatedly for his scorched earth pace.

The National Wales: Kenya v Wales in the World Rugby Sevens Series, Malaga, Spain - Wales' Lloyd Lewis takes on Billy Odhiambo Johnstone Olindi. Photo: Huw Evans Picture AgencyKenya v Wales in the World Rugby Sevens Series, Malaga, Spain - Wales' Lloyd Lewis takes on Billy Odhiambo Johnstone Olindi. Photo: Huw Evans Picture Agency

The World Rugby Sevens Series is the format’s annual globetrotting league competition stopping off in traditional Sevens venues like Hong Kong and Dubai as well as traditional rugby markets and those that are in their infancy like North America.

The decision was announced this week for Wales, Scotland and England to be represented in the World Rugby Sevens Series by a combined Great Britain team, and it’s angered a lot of people for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with rugby - Team GB competed in last season’s Dubai Sevens in the same competition at the expense of Wales without similar outcry.

READ MORE: Wales replaced with Great Britain team in World Rugby Sevens Series next season

People are upset because of what this means to Welshness and Wales’s status on a global platform.

At a time when Wales is about to be seen on the global stage of a football World Cup, it feels perverse for a Welsh sporting identity on a global platform to go into hiding.

World Rugby’s priorities for the format have changed since it was accepted to the Olympics - with that now being the pinnacle for the seven-a-side game. 

Until Wales sends its own team to the Olympics, what choice does the WRU have? If they refuse the merger, mandated by World Rugby, Team GB will be made up of Scottish and English players and there’d be no annual platform for the Welsh Sevens team.

The National Wales: Wales' Jasmine Joyce promoting the Team GB Sevens side ahead of the Olympics. Photo: Huw Evans AgencyWales' Jasmine Joyce promoting the Team GB Sevens side ahead of the Olympics. Photo: Huw Evans Agency

On the other hand, the WRU are probably making a saving on their player salaries of at least a third - money that’s desperately needed elsewhere in the game in Wales.

On a purely administrative level - the quantifiable level - the WRU’s hands are tied. Where their hands are not tied, however, is in the immeasurable things. 

Last week, the Wales Sevens team qualified for September’s Sevens World Cup (a competition they’ll always be eligible for), and in qualifying, incredible tries were scored by Croesyceiliog’s Lloyd Lewis - including one where a dizzying inside-outside step and turn of pace leave the defenders for dead.

His dizzying inside-outside step and turn of pace is easy on the eye, but the extra context is that this clip is of one of Welsh music’s most exciting rappers doing his day job, which just happens to be playing rugby.

Would you know this if you weren’t immersed in Welsh music culture?

The bean-counters in their blazers might be keeping things ticking over, but Welsh rugby has a player with an incredible story that they’re not telling anybody about. 

What other stories about Welsh rugby are being left untold? Is there anybody at the WRU who cares about the unquantifiable magic of Welshness?

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