While infuriated fans of one sport scream ‘It’s not rugby!’ in the aftermath of a heavy tackle, referees of the other scornfully remind mouthy players that ‘This is not soccer.’ We are forever hearing about the differences between Football and Rugby Union, with comparisons often amounting to assertions as to why one is superior to the other.

As an avid fan of both ball games I have never felt the need to claim moral high ground for either side, but noting the contrasts has always been of interest. One of the less talked about differences between both codes is the priorities of their respective followers.

Rugby: Country means more

Both sports are now gearing up for the business end of the club season after a recent period of international activity, but they have little in common when it comes to the transition. The hype around rugby has died down with the 6 Nations coming to a close, and only the die-hards are sticking around for the upcoming Champions Cup knock-stages. Internationals are where it’s at for oval ball devotees; it has always been so.

‘I’d never really watch the club games, to be honest’ many a casual rugby spectator has told me. But this mindset isn’t limited to armchair viewers; some who glue their eyes to every minute of their national team’s travails are clueless as to the domestic goings-on.

In Wales, the only northern hemisphere country which truly identifies with its rugby union team, the combined average attendances for the four regions only amount to about a third of the hordes who file through the gates of the Principality Stadium.

Football: Club comes first

It’s a different story when the round ball is kicked.

It says it all that the term ‘international break’ is widely used, not only by footballers who don’t feature in country colours, but by football fans as well. The return to club action after a bout of internationals feels like a getting-back-to-what-matters procedure after a momentary distraction that just had to be dealt with.

Outside of the summer footie fests such as the World Cup and the Euros, international matches are widely met with indifference.

‘Club before country’ has long since functioned as a motto for proud football fanatics, the prioritising of domestic affairs being considered the mark of a true fan. And while the World Cup remains the great gateway for those who don’t show much interest generally, even occasional viewers are now more likely to flick on Match of the Day on a regular weekend than they are to tune into England’s latest qualifier at Wembley.

So, why the difference?

Well, the most likely answer seems to be a simple matter of quality. The post-match chat at many a Pro12, Premiership, Top 14 or Super Rugby game will often involve speculation as to which promising talents might be rewarded with Test caps, while many players who struggle on the international stage are seen as not quite being up to this challenge yet.

On the other hand, a top class Premiership, La Liga or Bundesliga outfit will often have a subs’ bench full of players who start for their countries, making qualifiers such as England’s recent win over Lithuania seem like a step down from what the TV screens can usually offer.

Both seasons will now move towards their respective conclusions, but while football fans are glad to have the last bit of international shenanigans out of the way so that they can concentrate on the trophies that are there to be won, every European rugby game will be watched with an eye on who will make the Lions tour next summer. Club affairs will always matter more in the beautiful game, while with an oval ball the pinnacle remains at Test level.