More people in Ireland watched England v Croatia in World Cup than All Blacks win
Rugby might well be coming home but just how big that home is, that's the real question.
Since Saturday's amazing performance against the number one team in world rugby, the country has, for the most part, been split in two.
One group sniggers at what they describe as a fake achievement. They call the Ireland v New Zealand clash a 'friendly' and tell the rugby fraternity that they're only fooling themselves. But wouldn't it be great if every sport took one-off games as seriously as they did on Saturday night? Wouldn't it be good if, instead of watching a Martin O'Neill team half snoozing through a lifeless - and what they themselves deem pointless - match with their closest rivals, Northern Ireland, that they actually wanted to and tried to win the game instead? The way the Irish rugby team and the All Blacks treat a game like that is better than how people in the GAA spend December to May telling you that the inter-county games don't actually matter - then, of course, a lot of counties have their seasons ended after two matches by June.
On the other hand, there's a renewed sense of emboldenment that a win like Ireland's does for the oval ball community, and it isn't completely unjustified. But perhaps the talk of a cultural war is over the top, as if the island really was on the verge of becoming 'rugby country' because of the success of one team compared to the other. Football is so big and so accessible and so second nature that it doesn't need heroes in this country to protect it from extinction. Football, as a culture in Ireland, has survived long enough without much love being given to even its own domestic league so it's strange to think it needs to operate from the top down to keep it going, when it actually continues to grow in spite of what happens at the top. You see, where Jacob Stockdale and Tadhg Furlong and Peter O'Mahony inspire rugby for all the right reasons in the grass roots of three different provinces between them, football is so big and so global and already part of the fabric here that Messi and Ronaldo do the same job. As does the Premier League.
That might be what garners criticism for the Irish football brotherhood too but it's still the reality that kicking ball and watching ball - round ball - is engrained in society around these parts.
It's easier to send your kid to a football team on a Saturday morning. It's cheaper to send them to schools that play football at a decent standard. And there are very few places around the whole island where you'd describe a town as 'not being known for football'. Rugby, on the other hand, is still living off pockets of 'rugby areas' - they'll grow, no doubt, but it's a tough comparison yet with football.
And, as much as that almighty roar on Lansdowne Road on Saturday night put to shame anything the footballers have produced in the last 18 months, there still aren't as many people tuning in. That roar says more about Martin O'Neill than it does about culture.
In fact, more people watched England play Croatia in the World Cup semi-final on RTÉ this summer than they did the Ireland v New Zealand November international.
— RTÉ Communications (@RTEPress) November 19, 2018
On average, over 50,000 more people were tuned into the national broadcaster for that World Cup game between two different countries.
England v Croatia viewers
Ireland v New Zealand viewers
The same thing happened back in 2016 too when Portugal against Wales in the Euros last four drew a bigger audience than any of the rugby clashes throughout the entire year - more than the Six Nations, more than either New Zealand game. A football match with no Irish skin in it was the bigger attraction.
Interestingly though, the All Blacks win on Saturday didn't draw as big a crowd as the Grand Slam decider against England did earlier this year.
It slots in second in the rugby rankings for the calendar year.
2018 Six Nations viewers (average)
France v Ireland: 572,000
Ireland v Wales: 647,000
England v Ireland: 951,000
And, for a year-long comparison, its average viewership on RTÉ would've come in fifth for 2017's overall most-watched shows.
Top shows in Ireland 2017
- The Late Late Toy Show - 1.35m
- Mayo v Dublin - 1.14m
- Ireland v Denmark - 1.04m
- Galway v Waterford - 916,500
- Wales v Ireland (WC qualifier) - 866,100
Rugby's on the up and no-one should begrudge that stunning result and better performance against New Zealand. It's a team, a manager and, yes, a sport to be proud of in Ireland but it still has some way to go to win the culture of the entire country.