Symbols, survival and exceptionalism – Paul Williams looks at it all

We’re very proud of our culture in Wales. It may be our diminutive size, our subjugation by the English during the medieval period, or that Westminster seems reluctant to spend any money west of Bristol. But either way, we cling to our identity more than most.

A side effect of this is our obsession with symbolism. Few countries are as preoccupied with their emblems as we are, because few countries have as many emblems as us. Whilst most nations have one recognisable symbol that represents their country, we’ve got about five. Between the daffodil, leek, dragon, the sessile oak, and the red kite, our national symbols look like the produce from a weird farm.

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Then, there’s the language – arguably the most important symbol.

The importance of rugby

But beyond the tangible symbols, we have rugby. Plenty of countries say that sport is part of their national identity. In Wales, rugby really is. In times of economic and cultural hardship, rugby remained our most famous export. And it still arguably is today, even if not in financial terms.

It is within this cultural importance that those responsible for the game in Wales need to realise that they are not just running a sport, they’re running a cultural icon. But over the past few years, arguably a decade, the running of a sport has become the ruining of a sport. The level of mismanagement from pretty much every stakeholder involved in the situation has been shambolic to the point where the Conservative party could happily look over the border and say, “thank f*** we don’t work at the WRU!”

Welsh rugby culture

The national team recently lost in Edinburgh (Getty Images)

Everyone has some blame in this. If this is a game of Cluedo, no-one is innocent. The WRU board, the village clubs, district representatives (and even some supporters) are all killing Welsh rugby in the boardroom – with a dagger, gun, candlestick and the rope. 

What’s harming Welsh rugby culture?

First up there’s the governance of the game in Wales which directly affects the resources that are allocated to the professional side of the sport.

Only in Wales would the needs of the pro-game be decided by amateur clubs. Many of whom have at best apathy for the regions, and at worst would love to step in a time machine back to the 1980s. Where the word ‘region’ related to geography, not rugby, and every Welsh player could execute 46 sidesteps in every game, then drink 12 pints and pinch a woman’s backside. The allegations of sexism and misogyny at the WRU are incredible, even for an organisation run as badly as that.

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Then there are the senior figures at the WRU, who have allowed the regional game in Wales to rot to the point that if it was in your salad drawer, you’d hold your nose and pop it straight in the food recycling bin. All four regions, through very little fault of their own, are now cannon fodder in largely every competition they enter. That’s the Welsh rugby culture the rest of the world sees.

Welsh rugby culture

Dragons are second-bottom in the URC (Getty Images)

Our rugby also needs to address its understanding of what it means to be a Welsh rugby player.

Being a Welsh rugby player shouldn’t mean that you must play in Wales. It can’t. It’s economic suicide. What’s particularly unusual about this situation, is that no one really seems to mention that all the Welsh players, of note, are already largely playing in Wales. And it still isn’t working.

Barring a few big names, most of the Welsh squad play at the four regions. If there are players who can command bigger wages, of which there are plenty, they should be allowed to play in France or Japan and still play for Wales. Then, the excess budget can be spent on players who deliver more ‘rounds for the pound’. Overseas players are there all season.

Our role in the Welsh rugby culture

Then there’s us. That’s right, the Welsh supporters, of which I am one.

The ones that think that Welsh rugby is so important and so bullet proof historically that we think we can have four elite rugby teams, when a country the size of South Africa has the same (in the URC). Welsh rugby supporters may not be arrogant, but we’re self-confident to the point where many of us refuse to acknowledge that the rugby landscape and societal landscape has changed drastically. How many of us regularly sit and discuss Welsh rugby’s professional finances and how it should be run, whilst we sit in our local rugby club? Which itself is also struggling for cash and requires regular handouts from a governing body to continue what is essentially a loss-making hobby.

Every day we read about pubs closing in villages throughout Wales due to lack of demand, the same is true about local rugby. Yet for some reason every village believes they a god given right to have a rugby club. Meaning that you’re never more than a three-minute drive from an identical local rugby club that is in a similarly precarious position when it comes to money and player recruitment.

Wales fans

Wales fans in good sprits (Getty Images)

If Welsh rugby is to survive – and we are talking about merely surviving, not thriving – we all need to change our attitudes to the game.

We are a small nation, where only half of that small nation even plays the game in the required density. There is only so much money to go around. Not every village gets to have a local team and local ‘hub’ clubs may be the solution going forward. Not every city or town gets to have a professional rugby team despite how good that team was in 1954. Not every supporter gets to watch pro rugby by driving less than ten miles to a game. Not every person in Wales has the right to ‘identify’ and feel ‘represented’ by a pro rugby team. If you think they do, you’re part of the wider problem.

Rugby has changed. It is changing in every country in the world. Welsh rugby culture should change, but if we don’t adapt, the game will die and so too will a massive part of our identity. So, if you’re one of those people in a position to help Welsh rugby survive, then I’m begging you to do so. Don’t think of yourself, your village, your town. Think of Wales and what is means to us as a nation.

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