Wales v England: why small countries can win

The chasing pack: Wales’s Sam Warburton tears away with the ball against England in 2013.

Britain will hold its collective breath tomorrow as England face Wales in the Rugby World Cup. England has a much bigger population than Wales, so why is the result so uncertain?

For every Welshman, there are 18 Englishmen. For every square mile of Welsh soil, there are seven in England. Wales is dwarfed in size and population by England. Its early history is a litany of attempts to fend off invasion from the English to the east.

Nowadays relations between England and Wales are friendly, but when the two countries face off on the rugby field, the stormy atmosphere of the 13th century returns. When that happens during the Rugby World Cup, as it will at Twickenham on Saturday, the animosity is even more intense.

The match is both teams’ second in this World Cup. They have been placed in a tough group, with Australia as well as Fiji and minnows Uruguay. England saw off Fiji in their opening game, while Wales defeated Uruguay in Cardiff. Only the top two progress to the knockout stages of the tournament, so a defeat would be a disaster for either team. The embarrassment of an early exit from the World Cup played in your own country — which could be decided by this match — would be too much to bear for die-hard supporters. England are the favourites, while bookmakers price Wales at 3/1 (a one in four chance) to claim a famous win.

Rugby is popular in England, where the game was invented, but its status in Wales is close to a religion. Just as kilts and bagpipes form part of the Scottish stereotype, so rugby is a symbol of Wales. In England rugby has historically been a game of the middle and upper classes; but in Wales it transcends social boundaries.

This intense love of rugby and the fact that children are brought up playing and following it have enabled Wales’s small population to constantly overachieve in the game. Sport is full of such anomalies. New Zealand, perennial favourites for the Rugby World Cup, has a population of just 4.5 million. Barbados, a small island in the Caribbean, has produced an incredible number of the best fast bowlers in cricketing history, while Uruguay has won two World Cups in football with a population half the size of London. What explains this overachievement?

Small is beautiful

What do Wales, New Zealand and Uruguay have in common? They are all relatively wealthy. Cynics would say that they overperform largely thanks to being able to spend lots of money on excellent facilities. The harsh reality of modern-day sport is that being rich is the key to success.

That’s not how sport works, reply others. The great thing about sport is that it is a leveller — how rich you are has no bearing on how good you are. The Welsh are good at rugby because it is woven into their culture. Playing and following rugby is seen by many in Wales as a patriotic duty. It has nothing to do with wealth.

You Decide

  1. Who will win on Saturday: England or Wales?
  2. To what extent does wealth make a country good at sport?


  1. Design a billboard advertising the Rugby World Cup.
  2. Pick one international sporting rivalry and research its social, political and sporting history.

Some People Say...

“Sport divides people more than it unites them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can I go and see the Rugby World Cup?
Yes! Matches are being played at stadiums in London, Cardiff, Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham and several other cities across the country. England v Wales has sold out, but there are still tickets available for a lot of matches. The cheapest child tickets are around £10 for some games, so why not give it a go?
Will rugby ever be as popular in England as it is in Wales?
This is an interesting question. Football has not always been England’s number one sport, but with the vast amount of money in the game now, as well as the huge popularity of English football around the world, it seems unlikely that football will be overtaken any time soon.

Word Watch

13th century
Wales was subjected to English rule during the reign of Edward I who set out on a full-scale war of conquest in 1282. The country is still scattered with castles and towns built by Edward from this era.
Rugby World Cup
The Rugby World Cup is a relatively young tournament. It only started in 1987, while the first football World Cup was way back in 1930. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa have all won it twice, with England winning it once.
Fiji are another good example of a small nation overachieving. The country of just 850,000 people is consistently competitive at rugby, as are other Pacific island nations such as Samoa and Tonga.
The Welsh capital is home to the Millennium Stadium, which has become one of rugby’s most famous venues.
Where the game was invented
Rugby was invented at (and named after) Rugby School in Warwickshire in the 1820s, supposedly when a boy called William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football.

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