It is often claimed that Rugby Union is the national religion of Wales. We ourselves have made this hefty comment, although there may be a small amount of bias on our front there. But ask anyone from outside the country what the most important sport is in this small nation, and Rugby Union will invariably be the answer. But is this true? Is rugby really bigger here than football?
The answer is neither yes nor no, as is the general way with Wales. Rugby came to Wales in the 1850s, with the first international game being played in 1881, an 8-0 loss to England. That might not sound too bad, but consider that in today’s scoring system it would be a much less credible 82-0. A member of the Welsh side famously said ‘we were lucky to get nil’, showcasing the famous Welsh sense of humour in defeat. The 20th century brought success though, and the national side of the ‘70s is considered by many to be the greatest team in history. Unlike the rest of the country, rugby union is considered to be the sport of the working people in Wales. The sport is traditionally the refuge of the middle and upper classes throughout the UK, but it was industrialisation that brought it to small towns and villages across Wales. This physical game was taken on by the working class in Wales, a tradition that continues today.
What of football? Far and away the most popular sport in the UK, the Football Association of Wales was established in 1876 with the first national game coming a year later (a 4-0 loss to Scotland). The game was predominantly played in northern towns until the turn of the century, when it slowly spread to the south. The domestic game has never been particularly strong in Wales, in fact it wasn’t until 1992 that an independent Welsh league was formed. Many of the strongest sides decided to stay within the English system, with Cardiff City and Swansea City being the two most successful clubs. Both have played in the Premier League in recent seasons.
So what is it, rugby or football? Well, the answer is both. When the Six Nations comes around, rugby paints the nation red as the the Welsh come together to sing their heroes to victory. But rugby is struggling on the domestic front, with low attendances and finances seemingly in perpetual dire straits. The Welsh national football team was the butt of many jokes in the early 2000s, but has experienced unprecedented success in recent years, including a memorable run to the semi-finals of the 2016 European Championships. More young people participate in football at a grassroots level, and the domestic game is in much better condition, especially when those playing in the English system are taken into account.
But there are few experiences that match a rugby international at the Millennium, especially once the anthem begins. Rugby or football? Rugby and football.