How Welsh rugby can emulate the football and get its atmosphere back
Like many Welsh children, I grew up hearing stories of our famed rugby support; a crowd that was the first to sing a national anthem before a sporting event, the only crowd that sang in harmony, the crowd that led one BBC presenter back in 1964 to refer to them as ‘the most musical and passionate in the world’.
If you showed them then what it was to become in 2019, they wouldn’t have believed you. At the Barbarians game on Saturday, the atmosphere was disappointingly flat, with the murmur of chatting and people going back and forth to the concourse the prevalent sound, punctured only by the occasional ‘Waaales, Waaales’, the odd chorus of ‘Hymns and Arias’.
When Ken Owens scored a beautifully worked Welsh try in the 45th minute – one that typifies the style of rugby that became Pivac’s and the Scarlets’ hallmark during his 5 years in Llanelli – I missed most of the build-up due to the row in front getting their 5th round of the game in (no exaggeration).
I’m aware this was essentially a friendly match and that that kind of atmosphere was to be expected, but this experience, unfortunately, wasn’t far off my experience of Wales v Ireland during this year’s Six Nations.
A massive game, a Grand Slam decider. Although there was more noise, the singing was seriously lacking, and it’s almost become a cliché, but (again) many really were more interested in going to the bar than watching the match.
This has been the case for most if not all of the games I’ve attended in the past eight years, including a Grand Slam decider vs France in 2012 and a title decider vs England in 2013.
Whilst I personally can’t see why people can’t go 40 minutes without a pint, I’m aware it’s a day out for many and that drinking is part of the experience. I’m certainly not a teetotaller myself, and I don’t actually think that alcohol is the sole problem with the ‘matchday experience’, although it certainly contributes to the negative experience many people have.
I think, rather, that the ‘going back and forth to the bar’ behaviour is a reflection of the overall attitude of supporters at the match, i.e. one of general disengagement with the match itself and more focus on the ‘day out’. Whilst this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – people are welcome to enjoy something they’ve paid for however they want – a symptom of the aforementioned attitude to the match is the general lack of singing, and it’s that which I find most disappointing and demoralising when attending Wales matches.
The Land of Song Singing is a huge part of Welsh culture, one of the few things we are known for internationally (as well as rugby and Gareth Bale). It was rugby fans who made Wales famous for our singing ability. It’s part of our identity, and to let it disappear altogether would be heart-breaking.
“Society has changed”, you might argue. “People don’t go to chapel anymore, people don’t know the words to the songs, the match-going demographic is different and all the better for it.”
I think that certainly plays some part, but I’d counter that by pointing them down Ninian Park Road towards the Cardiff City Stadium, where the atmosphere and passion is in another stratosphere comparatively when Wales are playing – despite holding half as many people.
Calon Lân, a hymn arguably made famous by Welsh rugby fans, is belted out from the Canton Stand on several occasions at most matches. I can’t remember the last time I heard it at the Millennium Stadium during the match. The famously patriotic Yma O Hyd even had an airing recently, taken up by the Canton with gusto.
This isn’t just about Welsh language songs, however – even the Delilah’s and Cwm Rhondda’s of this world are few and far between at the rugby, whereas the football enjoys a wider repertoire of songs/chants. The football is currently getting right what the rugby isn’t, and it’s this reason that the argument of ‘societal change = decrease in singing’, for me, holds no water.
Although you could argue that the reason for this is football’s unique culture, very different from rugby’s, I’d wager there are many people who attend international fixtures of both sports. I find it hard to believe that there are more people at the football who know the words to Calon Lân, for example, than at the rugby.
So what could the rugby learn from the football? For those that haven’t experienced an international at the Cardiff City Stadium, the noise generally emanates from one area – the Canton Stand, situated behind one of the goals. It’s this area where the more boisterous people congregate, and where the majority of chants/songs begin.
What makes the Canton Stand such a success is the fans’ buy-in. Supporters know that if they want to sing, shout and have a generally noisier experience, they can buy a ticket in the Canton and get just that, and if not, sit elsewhere.
What helps is the FAW’s ‘Campaign Ticket’. This allows fans who attend regularly to purchase a ticket in the same seat for every game for slightly cheaper than an individual ticket per match. The result of this is that the same noisy supporters all congregate in the Canton Stand at every home match, many in groups, creating a racket of noise which encourages the other three sides of the stadium to join in. This ticket is available for any part of the stadium but in limited numbers per stand to allow a certain amount for general sale.
I think the WRU could implement a similar system in the Millennium Stadium. ‘Glanmor’s Gap’, the stadium’s North Stand, could become a dedicated singing-section reminiscent of the old East Terrace.
This would be a simple enough transition, as the WRU have already assigned this stand as the alcohol-free zone due to the stand’s unique structure, making it easy to segregate the area from the rest of the stadium. Doubling the section up as a singing/alcohol-free zone is also a possibility.
Having this small dedicated area would provide like-minded rugby fans an area in which to sing and fully engage with the match, whilst also improving the atmosphere in the rest of the stadium via a ripple effect.
A singing-section has also been adopted successfully by other top level sports teams, the most high-profile being Manchester United.
I would also suggest something similar to the FAW’s Campaign Ticket, allowing supporters to bulk-buy tickets in the same seat for all Six Nations matches and all four Autumn Internationals to encourage a core support to develop.
Whilst I know this wouldn’t and couldn’t replicate the ‘good old days’, I think this would have a significant impact on the atmosphere at Wales matches and improve the matchday experience.
It would also allow disillusioned rugby fans (like myself) the opportunity to connect with their ‘Welshness’ at the rugby as well as at the football.