I had a conversation with a New Zealander last week. Fortunately for me, it was before the finale of the Rugby World Cup, so he wasn’t yet unbearably smug, but he did have a few surprising observations about British rugby culture.
Having only just arrived in Cambridge, he was still getting to grips with the UK. He expressed his confusion at Halloween. He shared an understandable hatred for the time difference. But by far his biggest qualm was with the total lack of interest in the largest rugby event in the world, in the year that it happened to be played on our doorstep.
To him, it was shocking that he’d approached a stranger that morning and asked if they would be watching the match. Their response: ‘what match?’.
So I feel obliged to defend our commitment to sporting spectatorship. Before our friends from New Zealand get the wrong idea and start to think that we crashed out in the group stages because nobody cares about rugby.
Firstly, football. The sports market in the UK is highly saturated, primarily because of the never-ending supply of football that is being played. The League, the League Cup, the FA Cup, the European Cup, the Europa League, even the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is presumably interesting for someone somewhere. If a stranger asked me about a ‘match’ at the weekend, my primordial instinct, ingrained since youth, would be to moan about the amount of money in football or comment on the particularly bad start to the season that [insert team] are enjoying.
Perhaps even more relevant, is our national sheepishness, encouraged by our poor performance in the group stage. I feel like we would be more likely to openly back our national team – or even admit interest in a sporting event – if we had confidence that said team would be strong title contenders. Look at how much exposure Formula One or Golf gets now that we have had consistent, high-level success.
I personally feel that Cambridge is a city quite into its rugby. The Varsity Match attracts by far the biggest audience of any of the other Varsity games. But maybe we’re too wrapped up in other things – the big rivalry – to take too much interest in the sport on an international level. I’d be intrigued to see how New Zealand differs in its celebration of the sport. For now, the best advice I can give to my friend from New Zealand, is to get into football.