Rugby is simply much more than a game for Wales
Rugby continues to pervade all classes there more there in any of the other six nations
It’s worth the admission money alone to hear 70,000 Welsh people sing Bread Of Heaven in Cardiff and the resonance within it is unmistakeable.
Denmark has ‘Hygge’ but in Wales they have ‘Hwyl.’ One is all Scandinavian chill, the other a lot more turbulently Celtic. ‘Hwyl’ is the specifically Welsh concept of mood and emotion and a lot of it gets tied into rugby. You can argue it’s silly for so much national identity to be wound up in a game. But what is inarguable is that in Wales rugby matters.
That always makes Ireland-Wales matches a little tricky for some of us comparatively ambivalent about the game. Because rugby doesn’t really matter to anywhere near the same level here. Not really. Sure, if Ireland lose this Friday there will be the usual loud post-mortems. But it’s bluster in comparison to the deep introspection defeat provokes across the water.
Like it or not – and generalities always invite the danger of stereotypical cartoons – but rugby identity here largely remains about the choice of school parents make for their kids
And you have to be very rationally Scandinavian to not feel for that. It’s the bitch of it when identity gets poured into a game. It’s why Brazil practically went into national mourning over that 7-1 World Cup semi-final humiliation to the Germans. Or why stuffing the Poms in the Ashes means so much to Aussies. It’s illogical but what’s logic got to do with it.
And the reality is it isn’t the same with rugby in Ireland. Plenty of identity is wound up in it here too but it’s optional, much more about what people want to say about themselves rather than being presented with a heritage and have it seep into the marrow of how you see yourself and where you come from.
Rugby has never been more popular in Ireland than it is now but it’s not the same. Not by a long way.
Like it or not – and generalities always invite the danger of stereotypical cartoons – but rugby identity here largely remains about the choice of school parents make for their kids, choices their own parents probably made before them too, which then influence who plays at what club and where. There’s plenty of identity bound up in it too, but it’s different, and essentially artificial.
It’s a similar artificiality to Irish rugby’s provincial structure. Plenty of shouting goes into the provinces but it’s mostly a ‘morkoting’ triumph. No one at heart identifies themselves as being from Munster, Leinster, Connacht or Ulster. It’s the GAA which has sporting dibs on that Irish sense of place and it’s a lot more visceral than going with the franchise flow.
It’s obvious even in a little thing like the risible Ireland’s Call,’ an anodyne song that means nothing, in fact a deliberate attempt to remove identity, so that, as Tommy Tiernan puts it, “lumpy f---ers from the north of the island can play on the same team as lucky f---ers from the south of the island and not be fighting over the soundtrack”.
The contrast to 70,000 singing Bread Of Heaven in Cardiff on Friday really doesn’t need to be pointed out. It is worth the price of admission alone to hear the resonance within it, of a small nation which for over a century has found a violent game enough of an outlet for its sense of apartness rather than any sinister alternative.
And yes, Welsh rugby’s heartlands are mostly confined to the south of the country and the state of the game at grassroots level continues to give as much cause for concern as its club fortunes.
Part of the DNA
It’s also obvious that in terms of viewing figures and participation rates rugby in Wales is bending the knee to English Premier League football just like everywhere else, something reflected perhaps in widespread support for the Welsh football team although support for national teams hardly has to be exclusive.
But if the football team’s form is temporary, investment in the national rugby team’s fortunes is reassuringly permanent.
"Rugby is part of the DNA of Welsh men and women across the globe,” the legendary Gareth Edwards famously said. “It is at the heart of our very essence, defining us as individuals and as a nation.”
People might be slower now to leave the comfort of home to stand at the side of a field with so much available to view in the comfort of home, but the days of judging a sport’s popularity purely in terms of skulls through the turnstiles are surely over.
And while it might be trite to trot out the old ‘hooligan game played by gentlemen’ neither can it be ignored that rugby continues to pervade the classes more in Wales than any of the other six nations.
It’s why ultimately there’s a romance to Welsh rugby which simply doesn’t exist here, or in England or Scotland.
It’s why a simple thing like the initials ‘JPR’ remain impossibly evocative, just as the mere mention of Barry John is a similarly evocative hark back to a time when the game wasn’t some protein-binged collision-fest but an exercise in wit and improvisation, characterised by a feted twinkly-toed outhalf lightly carrying the weight of a nation’s expectations on his back.
Sure the grainy black-and-white replay reality mightn’t tally with the evocation. But it certainly doesn’t dilute its resonance in a country where even the team which beat the All-Blacks over a century ago is still revered. Perhaps only in New Zealand is there the same obsession and there too rugby is similarly pervasive through the classes.
The same kind of thing is famously supposed to exist in Limerick as well but in the Irish context that’s only the exception which proves rugby in Ireland doesn’t define anywhere near the level of ‘Hwyl’ which occurs in a country that right now is hurting after painful defeats to Scotland and England.
And no matter how green you are, you’ve got to feel for that. Because for Wales this really is more than a game.