By Rich Jones (FOR) & Mark Wyatt (AGAINST)
Rugby has always been considered the national sport in Wales – but times are changing.
The encapsulating journey of the Welsh football team over the last five years has reached a whole new audience and inspired a generation of supporters.
The atmosphere across Cardiff throughout the day prior to their crunch clash with Ireland was somewhat comparable with the city on a major rugby match day.
There is no doubt about it, football was the sport on everyone’s lips last week. Young or old, the beautiful game was in the spotlight for all the right reasons.
And whilst there may have been heartache for Chris Coleman’s side in the end as they missed out on a place in Russia next summer, there is no sign of the passion we’ve seen exhibited in recent years waning.
This team has captured the hearts and imagination of a nation in a way no Welsh side has. Gareth Bale is perhaps Wales’ most iconic ever sportsman, whilst cult heroes such as Joe Allen, Chris Gunter, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu contribute to a special connection with fans.
Tens of thousands of Welsh supporters flocked to France last summer to witness their side make history.
It was the turning of the tide – and that support has been ever-present throughout their dogged albeit ultimately unsuccessful World Cup qualifying campaign.
All home qualifying games have sold out, albeit at the smaller Cardiff City Stadium which players have signalled is their preferred venue, whilst away followings have been impressive.
The timing of their run could have barely been better. It is fair to say the Welsh rugby side is in the midst of something of a rut.
Despite success for the Scarlets and, to a certain extent, the Ospreys, the regional game has come under fire with the Dragons and Cardiff Blues experiencing a tough run.
Crucially, however, the Wales national side have struggled to compete with their English and Irish counterparts whilst also struggled against Southern Hemisphere opposition.
There is no doubt rugby will always have a huge degree of prestige in Wales. The sport is in the blood, and that passion will never disappear.
But we have now seen football emerge as a real threat to its status as the national sport. There will no doubt be swings and roundabouts as both sides go through peaks and troughs.
At present, it is football which is on the mind of people across the country and which has stirred an overwhelming sense of national pride.
It is perhaps the lack of expectation which has come through years of failure which has made this journey so special. The unexpected arrival of Wales on the big stage in Euro 2016 was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence which will leave a long-lasting legacy.
Factor in Swansea’s ongoing survival in the Premier League, Cardiff City’s rapid rise to the promotion picture under Neil Warnock and Newport County’s dramatic survival on the final day of last season and football is generating interest across Wales.
Does this mean it has permanently replaced rugby as Wales’ premier sport? Of course not, but it has without doubt forced rugby fans to sit up and take notice, and at this moment in time it is the subject everyone is talking about.
With 26 seconds remaining on the clock, Jonny Wilkinson kicked a field goal to win England the Rugby World Cup in dramatic fashion against a strong Australian side back in 2003.
82% of all television sets in England on that night were switched to the match and rugby fans rejoiced as the nation bathed in the glory of international success in a sport so often in footballs’ shadow.
Coupled with the national football side being dumped out of Euro 2004 just 8 months after Wilkinson’s famous winner, it could have shifted public perception and launched rugby as the top sport for the English.
Alas this did not happen and despite The Three Lions failure to reach the semi-finals of any international competition since 1996, football remains the top sport for it is ingrained into the DNA of every English sports fan.
The same is true for Wales. As an Englishman, it is difficult to see the national football side pale in comparison to the Welsh for the first time in a very long time.
What Wales achieved at Euro 2016 will not be forgotten and the hordes of Bale-inspired youngsters rushing to the football pitches will see Welsh football benefit for generations to come.
Even now despite England qualifying for Russia 2018 and Wales not, I would still be on the edge of my seat should the two sides meet in worry that the English would lose.
It’s a rare feeling after decades of England sitting head and shoulders above it’s Great British rivals at football.
But however successful Wales become on the football pitch, it’ll never overcome the passion they have for rugby.
The two are synonymous together and it’s something that won’t change no matter how many impressive performances Chris Coleman can pull together.
It’s a matter of fact – Monday tastes a lot sweeter for Wales after a rugby win compared to a win in the football.
Cardiff city centre was a sight to behold last Monday as football fans flocked the streets across the Welsh capital and created an incredible atmosphere.
Of course, the recent success of the football side has brought it new fans, but wait just a few weeks for the Autumn Internationals and compare the chaos.
Rugby fans eagerly wait for the winter months to draw closer for the thrill of watching the national side battle it out in the capital against the southern hemisphere’s greatest rugby nations.
It’s a patriotic series of matches that sees the nation come together in a way that is only topped when the English are visiting.
If you were to randomly select a handful of the Welsh population I think you’d be very hard pressed to find a majority that prefer football to rugby anywhere across the country.
I understand what Rich says, Coleman is winning the battle against Gatland in a fight ofor the hearts of the public – but it’ll always be a losing fight.
Rugby was Wales’ first true sporting love and that flame won’t be going out any time soon, no matter how many 40-yard screamers Gareth Bale can fit in before he retires.