Rugby Union isn't the national sport in England by a mile, but last Saturday's World Cup semi-final over France in the Stade de France was watched by the 2nd highest TV sports audience in history, only less than the 1990 FIFA World Cup semi-final England vs West Germany from Turin, Italy.
In fact the audience was 50% more than watched England 3 vs Estonia 0 from Wembley earlier in the day, although that match was won before half time. Although both England teams sing the national anthem before their matches, the rugby fans have their own 'anthem' Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, an American negro spiritual from the 1870's. It was first sung at an England rugby international on March 19th, 1988. 0-3 down to Ireland the crowd started singing the song and England won 35-3. You see quite a few of the England white rugby shirts around town with the English rose badge but not too much of an outporing into the streets from the pubs after a victory, and not many flags, or taxis and buses sporting flags and signs. The national league has 12 teams and an attendance of 10,000 is above average but the teams, such as Leicester Tigers, Leeds Carnegie, Bath, Worcester, Sale Sharks, Harlequins etc don't generate the income that soccer teams do. You will see Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Newcastle, shirts all over the country, such is the national and international interest, but rugby union gear doesn't have such a wide appeal.
In fact I normally enjoy Rugby League with 13 as against 15 players which is more popular in the North of England. Its a more free flowing game and the Union guys(and gals these days) rely too much on kicks into touch to gain ground-and points. In Rugby League, kicks have to bounce in play before going into touch to gain yards. The Grand Final at Old Trafford between Leeds Rhinos and St Helens Saints was immediatley before the France vs England match in Paris. The top 2 teams in the league are lighter on the average than their union counterparts. Rob Burrow of Leeds is only 5' 3" and was man of the match as The Rhinos won comfortably 33-6 and will face Melbourne Storm the best team in the Southern hemisphere, probably at Elland Road next February.
However, in the pub and lots of pubs all over England the match at the Stade de France was exciting from start to finish in a bruising encounter and the pub crowd exploded in joy and poured into the streets with an England victory. In Paris 40,000 English fans arrived, and many took to the bars including the Frog and Rostbif in Rue St. Dennis as Johnny Wilkinson booted the winner over and between the posts to take his team to Saturday's final with the South African Springboks. England hope, against the odds to be the first country to retain the Webb Ellis Trophy, but are underdogs after a 36-0 mailing by the 'Boks in the group stage.
England's footballers play in snowy Moscow on Wednesday knowing that a win will guarantee a place at EURO 2008 next year. The match is being played to a sell out 70,000 crowd at the Luhzniky Stadium on a 3rd generation Field Turf pitch. Russian coach Guus Hiddink from Holland has his salary bankrolled by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and has just extended his contract. With Wayne Rooney scoring his first international goal for 3 years at Wembley, coach Steve McLaren hopes the young lad has regained his form.
Meanwhile Germany are the first team to qualify for next years finals, along with hosts Switzerland and Austria. Austria is 85th in the FIFA rankings, below Haiti, but along with Greece, the holders, Germany and Switzerland will be a 'seeded' team when the final draw is made. Sweden, Spain, Croatia, Scotland, Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Romania might qualify by mid week.