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How Popular is Rugby in your Country?

How Popular is Rugby in your Country? - Absolute Rugby

Matthew Buckland |

With millions of registered players around the world and countless more fans, rugby is an incredibly popular sport. Rugby is played in hundreds of countries, and millions of passionate fans enjoy huge tournaments like the World Cup and Six Nations.

We’re looking at where in the world rugby is the most popular. Is it the obvious countries? Or will you be surprised? 

a close up image of a globe

Let’s start with some quick facts:

Quick-fire rugby facts 

  • There are currently over 6.6 million registered rugby players worldwide.
  • There are over 2,000 clubs in England alone. 
  • In 2021, rugby was the third most-played sport, behind tennis and football. 
  • Over 857 million people watched the last Rugby World Cup final in Japan in 2019 - the most-watched rugby event in history. 
  • Rugby is played in over 120 different countries worldwide. 

We found out which teams are the most followed on Instagram and Twitter. There aren’t many surprises here!

The top five most-followed rugby teams on social media

Rank

Country

Instagram Followers

Twitter Followers

1

New Zealand (All Blacks)

2 million

1 million

2

England

1 million

1.1 million

3

South Africa (Springboks)

712K

811.5K

4

France

696K

784.4K

5

Ireland

595K

827.7K

 

Despite being only the fourth most-followed team on social media, France, in fact, has the highest number of registered players with over 540,000, they come in way ahead of huge rugby nations like New Zealand and South Africa. France has a strong rugby side which is going from strength to strength; they have 17 Six Nations wins to their name and are hosting the 2023 Rugby Union World Cup. 

an image of a smartphone with the instagram, facebook and twitter apps

Emerging rugby nations 

Aside from the obvious countries, several nations are on the rise in rugby. 

Georgia 

There is a rich history of rugby in Georgia, with its earliest iteration known as “Lelo” or “Lelo Burti”, which translates to “Field Ball”. 

Villages competed against one another with a local priest refereeing; the priest would bless the seven-kilogram ball before throwing it up for the teams to battle it out, trying to carry it to a marked area known as the Lelo. 

In Georgia, the national side is known as The Lelos, and a try in Georgia is still called a Lelo to this day. Georgian rugby faced a huge setback in the 1990s following the break-up of the Soviet Union. However, with guidance from former French flanker Claude Saurel, Georgia began seeing success and more investment in the sport. Now, The Lelos often draw crowds of over 50,000 to rugby matches. 

Kenya Rugby Sevens

One of Kenya’s more successful sporting teams, the Kenyan Sevens side are one of the 15 core teams in the World Series, which guarantees them a place in all 10 events every season. 

Kenya Sevens are sometimes referred to as Shujaa by Kenyan and international press. The Swahili word means courage, bravery or heroism. 

The team have enjoyed success in multiple tournaments, including the Rugby Sevens World Cup, the World Rugby Sevens Series and the Singapore Sevens. The team have also won the men’s Team of the Year award six times at the Kenyan Sports Personality of the Year. 

Thailand 

Rugby union is a significant sport in Thailand, with over 16,000 registered players governed by the Thai Rugby Union. 

In the early 1900s, rugby was played in Thailand by the middle-class population, joined by English and French ex-pats. The Second World War put the development of rugby in Thailand on pause. However, it survived thanks to its adoption by the Thai military and police.

Now, Thailand has over 50 clubs, and the national team compete in competitions like the Rugby World Cup, Asian Five Nations and the Asian Games. 

What makes rugby so popular?

Some rugby fans are born into sport-loving families, while others find rugby in school, through a hobby or just by watching on tv. Several things draw people to rugby. For a start, the entertainment factor. Rugby is amazing to watch; the speed, intensity and brutality of the game make it a great show. 

The respectful nature of the sport is another thing that makes rugby appealing. Home and away fans sit together in harmony, and players show a lot of respect towards one another and the referee (unlike some other popular sports we could mention…)

Rugby is a welcoming sport. You’ll see fans of all ages, genders and backgrounds in the crowd at a rugby match, and there’s always a friendly, respectful atmosphere amongst the crowd. 

a wide shot of the crowd at the rugby world cup 2019

What barriers does rugby face in gaining popularity?

Rugby is undoubtedly a very popular sport with millions of fans worldwide. However, rugby is still worlds behind the popularity of football. Despite the incredible viewership of the 2019 Rugby World Cup final, reaching over 857 million, this doesn’t scratch the surface of the 3.5 billion who tuned into the 2018 Football World Cup final - that’s almost half the world's population. 

What barriers does rugby face that prevent it from reaching that extensive audience?

One thing is the split between rugby union and rugby league. This immediately divides the audience. Despite union being the more popular of the two, with many fans worldwide, even the two combined can’t compete with the immense popularity of football. 

Rugby was an amateur sport for a long time, until the late 20th century. This prevented the poorer working class from participating as they couldn’t make any money. The time, effort and resources required to train up to a high standard simply weren’t available to those who worked for a living. This meant that for a long time, rugby was only accessible to the rich or those who didn’t have to work. 

Similarly, the conditions required for playing rugby were also a barrier for poorer areas. Rugby can’t be safely played on hard, poorly maintained ground due to the nature of the sport. This means that well-funded schools and institutions were the only ones who could afford these facilities, further alienating the working class from the sport. 

Now, rugby is much more accessible, with thousands of schools in the UK playing regularly. Plus, England has the highest percentage of rugby clubs in the world. The women’s game is on the rise along with wheelchair rugby, most recently being showcased via the Wheelchair Rugby League World Cup. 

wheelchair rugby players

Rugby is popular all around the world and is only growing, gaining players and fans of all backgrounds, races, genders and abilities. Long may it continue!

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