There’s bound to be many articles out there comparing the contrasting fortunes of Wales’ rugby and football teams from this summer. As the dust settles on (what I consider to have been) a disastrous tour of New Zealand for the rugby team, Wales football is preparing for its first even semi-final appearance in a major tournament. Therefore, I have to ask – is football now the national sport of Wales? Does it really matter either way? And, what more can be done to ensure the long term survival and prosperity of rugby in Wales?
The last month has been a pleasure for Welsh sports fans like myself. It’s been an enjoyable and fascinating experience witnessing the good natured support of Welsh football fans – and that of many other nations, for that matter – who are thrilled to be represented at a tournament of this calibre. The mood has been further buoyed by success on the pitch, which has seen Wales far exceed the expectations of perhaps even the most optimistic Welsh fan. Rugby’s reputation for having superb fans, with no segregation, is often seen as one of the sport’s defining characteristics. And, while there will be no plans to ditch segregation in football any time soon, it’s great to see that travelling supporters in France have been largely praised by pundits, authorities, and rival supporters alike.
With Swansea City having spent several years in the Premier League, and Cardiff City flying high in the Championship after a poor spell in the Premier League themselves, it seems it was only a matter of time before relative club success translated onto the international scene. Too much time, some Welsh football fans might argue! Indeed, my Dad would have absolutely loved to have witnessed his beloved Bluebirds reach the Premier League, and I dare say he’d have applied for his first ever passport with the knowledge that Wales had reached the Euros.
It’s interesting to note that I understand only two of the current Wales squad play Premier League football inside Wales. (I apologise if this statistic is incorrect – I am the Welsh rugby man, after all!) To me, this points to great, careful selection on a coaching front and – very importantly – a very strong Championship competition, capable of nurturing players of the highest standard. The League’s second tier is a brutal competition; fiercely contested and relentless, only the strongest of teams finish top of the pile to earn their place amongst the Premiership’s elite.
Domestic rugby in Wales faces a challenge to compete with competitions as strong as this. For a start, the Pro12 has no promotion and relegation which, in my opinion, is the true element of sport. It gives teams something to fight for. Without a league structure that leads right through to elite level, there is a danger that the professional teams in Wales could be left floundering. The Welsh Premiership has itself been expanded, then ringfenced for three years from next season, in a bid to increase standards.
It has to be said that Wales’ national rugby team has definitely been punching above its weight since the introduction of the regions, with only the Ospreys performing consistently in the domestic league, and none of the teams regularly pushing for European honours. Without excellence at regional level, it’s only a matter of time until the national team suffers. One can only hope that every effort is being made to help support and encourage the most talented players we have to stay in Wales, right through from grass-roots level to playing at one of the regions, and then for the national team. The dual Club/Country contracts have certainly helped in this area. It’s also important that the coaches at the regions know they have a responsibility to get the best from these teams and these players, and that they know they are a vital stepping stone to the success of our national team. Standards certainly need to be raised after the disappointments of the 2015/16 season.
So, has football overtaken rugby in Wales? The truth is, it’s too early to tell. Perhaps that really depends on what successes come our way in the next year or so.
For now, rugby takes some down time, while Wales football roar into their semi-final meeting with Portugal this evening. History beckons! Good luck lads!