Wales’ World Cup campaign is over. The autumn rugby internationals are about to begin. Which team – football or rugby – can now claim to be more in rhythm with the beating heart of the nation? Seimon Williams argues round ball and oval ball can roll along together just fine. Together, stronger, maybe?
The current affairs website nation.cymru carried an interesting article on Monday morning entitled “Win or lose today, Welsh football has shown rugby what a national sport looks like”. Its author, Ifan Morgan Jones – while confessing that he is primarily a rugby supporter – commented that
“…when it comes to building a national team, the Welsh FA is showing the WRU how it’s done. It has little to do with anything happening on the pitch, and everything to do with culture, attitude and national pride surrounding the team”.
It’s certainly the case that the country’s profile has increased significantly with the success of the football team in recent seasons. The journey of the team and its supporters has been joyous to watch. The squad’s very Welshness – from the use of the language in press conferences to trips to visit Hedd Wyn’s grave in Belgium – has been widely praised.
More significantly, the modern, nationalist-inclined anti-establishmentarianism of the culture around the national football team has been contrasted favourably with the perceived establishment, unionist, moribund ethos of Welsh rugby and of the Welsh Rugby Union.
But to what extent, if at all, is that true?
When I was born in the west of Swansea in the mid-1970s, football was the game of the anglicised town while rugby was the game of the (then, still) bilingual outlying villages (two of the three villages I lived in as a child didn’t even have a senior football team. Rugby was all). As a kid I demanded to be taken to the Vetch as often as to Stradey and St. Helen’s. Eventually, I became more of a follower of the oval ball game.
My love of rugby was at least partly driven by my emerging awareness of nation and place – the story of how Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was first sung, spontaneously, by the crowd at the 1905 Wales-New Zealand game in response to the tourists’ haka; the tales of local boys – such as Tanner and Davies, still Gowerton Grammar schoolboys when they beat the All Blacks in 1935 – who took on the world; the hymns and folk songs we sang in just two or three places – school, chapel and rugby internationals.
Welsh football, by contrast, didn’t feel…well…that Welsh. Swansea City fans routinely flew the Union flag. The national team had the odd near miss, but didn’t seem to be something that Swansea City fans took much interest in. Wales didn’t have many top-level clubs, so few of our top players ever played club football in Wales.
The Welsh language certainly had no profile. Playing for Wales seemed to be less of an honour – certainly for higher profile players – and more of a chore. Few of the players knew the words of the anthem. When Wales routinely failed to qualify for the finals of major championships, it wasn’t unusual to see Welsh shops decked out in St George’s Crosses, to have to sidestep 6 foot cardboard cutouts of Alan Shearer and co at the local Asda, to sit in pubs with Welsh people screaming their support for the England football team.
I have an uncle in Neath – born, bred, never left – who despised England’s rugby team but used to refer to their football team as “us”. We don’t speak much.
All of that now seems to have changed.
Welsh rugby has been beset by incessant bickering. The fortunes of the national and professional teams have declined. At the same time, the Welsh Rugby Union seemed to become ever more firmly entrenched within the establishment. Then-Chairman David Pickering had to apologise for using WRU facilities to arrange Labour Party events.
It has been criticised many times for its attitude towards the Welsh language. Match-day at the Principality Stadium (named for the Building Society which sponsors it, by the way, not as an ill-informed reference to Wales’ constitutional status) often has a (British) military theme.
The singing – for so long uniquely identified with the Arms Park – has disappeared and you’re lucky to get the chorus only (with the wrong words) of two songs these days. Then there is this absolute abomination of a WRU-commissioned portrait of the Queen, both an artistic and political misstep of monumental proportions.
But then, is Welsh football really that different?
Yes, Prince William is patron of the WRU, but his grandmother is patron of the FAW. Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland received an OBE in 2014 for services to the game in this country, just as Chris Coleman received an OBE this summer. The FAW publishes its Annual Report bilingually, as does the WRU.
Both run partially bilingual websites, in that not everything on the “full” English version appears on the Welsh version. The national football team conducts parts of its press conferences in Welsh with a member of the coaching team and players taking questions in the language, as does the national rugby team. Yr Orsedd has previously honoured the likes of Gareth Edwards and Grav, just as it has Osian Roberts and Ian Gwyn Hughes.
The culture around the football team, however, does seem to be to be more vibrant. But even that isn’t uncontroversial. Comedian Elis James wrote and presented a programme for Radio 4 last summer in which he made the case that football is Wales’ national game.
In terms of participation numbers – both playing and physically attending as spectators at sub-national level – that argument has long been won. His assertion that Welsh rugby is culturally insular and moribund has some legs – the disappearance of the old rugby songs hasn’t been countered with the emergence of new ones – but comparing Super Furry Animals’ Euro 2016 anthem Bing Bong with a tape of Max Boyce singing Hymns and Arias at Bont RFC as evidence, when the latter has become Swansea City’s unofficial club song, was a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps it’s just about winning. When the rugby team got to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand, 61,000 fans turned up at the Millennium Stadium at 8am on a Saturday morning to watch the match on a big screen. The buzz created by that Wales team has faded as their style became more prosaic and success faded.
Likewise, while the football team sold out the Millennium Stadium for a game against Azerbaijan in 2003, they were playing Russia in front of barely 15,000 just six years later. Now tickets are like gold dust again.
So maybe the two aren’t so different, but the perception is that they are, and that’s important. The global reach of football, and the recent success of the national team, has raised the country’s profile. Getting Europeans to understand that Wales isn’t England is much less difficult now than it was even two years ago.
The style with which the football team have played in recent years, and the joy with which its supporters have carried themselves around Europe, have been hugely positive for the country. The emergence of a counter-culture with significant presence of football supporters – from the music of The Barry Horns to the proliferation of podcasts (such as the excellent Podcast Peldroed) to the “independent football nation” slogan – is building a national movement which is fresh and exciting.
So, yes, there are undoubtedly lessons which rugby can learn from football. The reverse also applies, of course.
There’s room for both in the New Wales.