Rugby unites the nation

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John Osmond discovers that appreciation of the national game is the strongest experience uniting the people of Wales:

Welsh passion for the national game is renowned, but new BBC audience figures, comparing our involvement with the other home nations, underline the extraordinary extent of our engagement.

The most startling statistic is that while the recent international between Wales and England at the Millennium Stadium attracted a 33 per cent audience share in England (that is, the proportion of the total number of people watching television at the time) the Welsh figure was more than double, at 67 per cent.

The comparisons in audience share for the Wales and Scotland international at Murrayfield a week earlier are equally striking. While the audience share in Scotland for this home game was 35 per cent, in Wales it was 68 per cent.

And we watch more than anyone else, even when we are not playing. The figures for the other international matches last weekend were:

France versus Scotland: 48 per cent in Wales, 32 per cent in Scotland, 29 per cent in Northern Ireland and 26 per cent in England.

• Italy versus Ireland: 46 per cent in Wales, 34 per cent in Northern Ireland, 21 per cent in Scotland, and 21 per cent in England.

In terms of actual numbers of people the 67 per cent Welsh audience share (which, incidentally, includes S4C viewers) means 817,000 people watching the game in Wales. That was the average throughout the game. The number of viewers peaked towards the end of the match when BBC Wales calculate that 896,000 people were watching. Across the UK as a whole, the average number watching the game was 7,000,090.

However, it is the Welsh statistic that is so striking. When you add the 75,000 who actually attended the game in person at the Millennium Stadium, then getting on for a third of the nation’s entire population watched the match. The English equivalent would be more than 16 million people. By comparison, according to MediaGuardian, the most watched English soccer cup final in recent years was Millwall versus Manchester United in 2004, which attracted 9 million viewers (across the whole of the UK).

In Wales we normally emphasise the things that divide us, whether it be devolution referendums, the distance between north and south and the mountains that block a rail route, or the differences in the Welsh experience determined by whether we speak the language of heaven or not. Here, courtesy of television, is a cultural experience in which, one way or another virtually the whole population participates. More to the point, there can be no doubt that the whole population is also unanimous in wanting the same outcome: in this case beating the hell out of the old enemy.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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