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But we all had doctors’ papers
And they all said just the same
That we’d all got Scarlet Fever
And we caught it at the game!
Thus Welsh comedian and songwriter Max Boyce commemorated perhaps the greatest moment in the history of Llanelli Scarlets, the rugby union club’s 9-3 victory over New Zealand’s fabled All Blacks in 1972 – his reference to “scarlet fever” not only a play on words but an expression of the passion the Welsh town of 42,000 people brings to the sport.
The phenomenon of a community overwhelmingly identified with a sport is familiar from other games and nations. Some generate vast quantities of talent, cherishing it even as it leaves in the pursuit of careers and wealth. Others have teams who outperform richer clubs from larger cities.
Some enjoy brief bursts of improbable fame, while others go on producing it for long periods. That identification confers fame beyond the strictly local repute that would otherwise be their lot.
The entire Dominican Republic exemplifies the phenomenon. Half an island in the Caribbean (the other half being Haiti), it generates serious baseball talent much as Pacific Islands such as Samoa and Fiji produce rugby players.
Even by Dominican Republic standards, its fourth city, San Pedro de Macoris, is exceptional. About 150 natives of this town of only 125,000 earn a living playing professionally in the US, a disproportionate number of them commanding the spectacular fielding skills needed to play shortstop. Some 20, including All Stars such as Alfonso Soriano, Washington Nationals’ second-baseman-turned-outfielder, are on major league rosters. The most famous of all is Sammy Sosa, fifth on the all-time home-run list, but he appears to have now retired.
If San Pedro’s miracle is the production of talent, that of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is the maintenance of a successful sporting franchise, supposedly the preserve of big cities and extreme wealth. The Packers have played throughout the history of the US National Football League and won a record 12 championships – the most recent in 1997. A city with a population of just more than 100,000 regularly outperforms teams from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and there is a massive waiting list for season tickets at the 72,000-seat Lambeau Field.
Green Bay has a college football equivalent in South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame has won eight national college championships and commands the largest television contract of any college team.
But its passion for sport finds a rival in the French town of Lens’s enthusiasm for soccer. The 42,000-capacity of the Stade Felix Bollaeart, where Racing Club de Lens are once more challenging for a place in European competition, exceeds the town’s population.
Not even San Pedro has generated bat and ball genius with the intensity to match a Caribbean community only a little larger, the cricketing island of Barbados, which between 1924 and 1937 gave birth to three astonishing batsmen – Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott – the finest all-round player ever seen, Sir Garfield (Garry) Sobers, and the fastest bowler of the era, Wesley Hall.
And what was in the water in Huddersfield, England, in the 30 years from the mid-1890s, when it successively generated two extraordinary all-round cricketers, Wilfred Rhodes and George Hirst, one of the two most dominant teams in British rugby league history and the first soccer team to win three consecutive English championships?
What is striking about Llanelli’s rugby tradition of producing both brilliant individuals and a strong club in a sport where players, until recently, stayed close to home, is sheer longevity. It won its first trophy in the 1880s, supplied seven men to a Wales team in the 1920s and won 13 Welsh Cups between 1971 and 2003.
Such traditions have an element of the self-perpetuating. A Llanelli youngster with ball skills will be spotted and channelled into rugby, just as his San Pedro counterpart may be handed a battered old baseball glove. Success generates popular support. All of it is underpinned by a sense of pride in a community, its achievement and what makes it different. Llanelli is distinguished from Newport, Swansea and Cardiff, its local rivals’ homes, by being not only smaller but also bilingual – about 50 per cent Welsh-speaking.
Its pride has two dimensions. It takes on a Welsh national flavour whenever Llanelli advances in the Heineken European Cup or the new Anglo-Welsh Powergen Cup (it lost last week’s Powergen final to English club Wasps at London’s Twickenham).
It reverts to local levels on Tuesday when the Scarlets visit the Ospreys, descendant of ancestral rival Swansea, in a Celtic League match.
In any context, it is loud, proud and assertive. Whatever the World Health Organisation has to say, this scarlet fever is probably ineradicable.
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