This column first appeared in The Western Mail in February 2023.
Joy of joys, it’s my least favourite time of year to live in Cardiff again. It comes around so quickly, the Six Nations. Just as I’ve breathed a sigh of relief that the Autumn internationals are over, here comes rugby again.
As a keen Sunday morning jogger, the horror of traversing St Mary Street when it’s caked in vomit, urine and stale beer from the night before is just the very worst. Honestly, the number of times I’ve stopped and doffed my metaphorical cap to Cardiff Council’s excellent street cleansing teams for the shift they put in to make it all sparkling for shoppers again. They should get paid a generous rugby bonus if you ask me (you didn’t).
I’m just going to say it. And yes, I realise it’s blasphemy tantamount to not knowing what the word cwtch means. But I hate rugby. There. And breathe.
Maybe it’s the way I was dragged around a succession of windswept pitches at the top of rain-soaked valleys (in the 1980s, when everything seemed greyer, somehow) only to watch my dad being raked with studs and spat out the back of a ruck. The black eyes! The broken bones! The blood! Witnessing that every weekend was highly upsetting for a girl of my sensitive disposition. It felt more like organised violence than sporting endeavour. Then there was the rugby club afterwards, where we kids made a bottle of pop and a packet of crisps last seven pints of lager. And don’t get me started on the singing.
Weirdly, my siblings all still love rugby. Even though we shared the same formative experiences, my brother went on to play for years. And my twin sisters love nothing more than donning a red shirt (it’s an undisputable fact that no woman looks good in one, don’t @ me) and straining their vocal cords for 80 minutes. One sister moved to England in her early 20s, which radicalised her. She’s all over my social feeds on an international day, banging on about hiraeth. I mean, if you miss it so much, just move back, right?
I don’t understand how we share the same genes.
It is often claimed that rugby is our “national sport”. Except it isn’t, is it?
Football participation in Wales is much higher than rugby, and attendances at the top Welsh football clubs’ games are significantly higher than crowds at Welsh regional and club rugby matches.
And, as Colombian singer Shakira didn’t quite say, the stats don’t lie.
So why do we have to persist with this charade that egg-chasing is somehow a deeply ingrained part of our national psyche and identity?
Nine months ago, Rugby officially stopped being Wales’ favourite sport.
An independent audience research report by Nielsen for UEFA asked a representative sample in Wales in 2016, 2019 and 2022, which is their favourite sport. Last year, for the first time, football came out on top. The poll showed football opening up a 47% to 45% lead as the nation’s favourite sport. It’s official. We’re falling out of love with the egg-shaped ball. And about time too.
For the last two weeks, there’s been plenty of bad news on the pitch, but a much bigger story overshadows the dire sporting performances.
And I’m not talking about Delilah, here.
This year’s Six Nations tournament has been eclipsed by a harrowing sexism and misogyny scandal that has engulfed the Welsh Rugby Union, the sport’s governing body in Wales.
The testimony of some brave women in a BBC Wales documentary about a “toxic” culture made for tough watching. One former employee alleged that a colleague told her that he wanted to rape her, and another woman claimed she wrote a manual for her husband in case she killed herself.
The surprising bit was that so many people were surprised by these allegations.
I mean, come on. An organisation run by a bunch of old men in club ties is allegedly responsible for a culture of deep-seated misogyny? Have you ever been to a rugby club? Despite the shocking nature of the claims, my eyebrows remained firmly unraised.
Meanwhile in our actual national sport, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) boasts an excellent governance framework. It proactively promotes the Welsh language, diversity and inclusion and the participation of girls and young women.
Isn’t it time we had a long hard think about what our sporting preferences say about us to the world?
Next weekend, Wales play England (yawn). It’s a tricky one for me. I’d rather stay at home washing my hair or shaving my eyeballs. But my sister is in town with her English husband. And my partner loves rugby so much that he prints actual hymn sheets and can barely sleep with excitement for days leading up to an international match. Because I love them both deeply, I’ve agreed to join them in the pub before the game. And I’ll join them there afterwards, for the crying. For the 80 minutes in the middle, you’ll find me hiding in Waterstones (other independent bookshops are also available). The city centre will be like Dante’s seventh circle of hell. So that’s the extent of the sacrifice I’m prepared to make. They’ve nagged me about going to the match with them. But as poor departed Meatloaf said, I’ll do anything for love, but I won’t do THAT.
Former first minister Carwyn Jones famously said it ‘doesn’t matter’ which is our national sport. But I think he’s wrong.
When it comes to brand Wales, we need to kick the stereotypes about what it means to be Welsh into touch. And surely the age-old debate of what is Wales’ national sport has never been so easy to settle.
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