(From The Observer article) Who’s going to be first to hit the new boy?” Ravi Sitlani, one of the England lacrosse team’s managers and a former international player, is teaching me to protect the ball. I am cradling it in the net of my three-foot-long stick, which I’m holding in my right hand while my left arm tries to shield it. Every time he says “go”, two guys whack me with their sticks until I drop it. Ravi says they’re checking me, but it feels like whacking. Then Ravi says, “This time, try and catch the ball and then protect it.” They whack me. “Now try and run between them.” They whack me.
I’m training with Stockport LC, at Aquinas College, a short drive down the A6 from the Firs, where Manchester will host the 2010 world championships. Lacrosse is played countrywide but Cheshire is the game’s stronghold and Stockport, founded in 1876, are one of the oldest clubs in the world. The guys whacking me are England internationals Tom Williamson and Sam Patterson. England won the European championships in Finland last year and there are six Stockport players in the 32-strong national squad.
I’ve always fancied lacrosse. My main sport is hockey, and I’ve never played for a hockey team that didn’t think it would make a pretty decent lacrosse team with a couple of weeks practice. When I arrived, Keith Gosnay, an ex-England coach, threw and caught some balls with me. It wasn’t hard. Then we did it running, and cradling the ball by twisting our right wrists to keep the ball safely in the net. Trickier, but fine.
When the players lined up to do warm-up drills – running past each other in lines making passes – I stood at the back to get a crude sense of what to expect. The crude sense I got was that the passes were thrown about a hundred times harder than in my warm-up with Keith.Every time it was my turn, I either didn’t catch the ball or chucked it somewhere into the deep, dark night. I got a lot of advice – soften your top hand so that the ball doesn’t bounce out of the net; try to throw with a vertical stick because then at least you can gauge the direction – but it was at this point that the lacrossers started to joke about hitting me.
Stockport may be a haven for internationals, but the reality is that each of those England stars must find £8,000-10,000 to fund their career. Nor do they train at a state-of-the-art complex. We’re standing in the rain on a school’s Astroturf. After years of battling football clubs for pitch-time, Stockport have come to an arrangement to use the Aquinas College grounds, where the pupils benefit from elite-level coaching.
The English Lacrosse Association promotes similar programmes countrywide. Ravi explains that there are 250 clubs in England with a registered membership of 17,000, which has almost doubled in the past couple of years on the back of the national team’s success. It’s nothing compared to North America, where 70,000 fans watched last year’s college finals. But if you think that this is another instance of America taking a British game and putting it in pads and helmets, think again. Before being codified by a Canadian dentist, lacrosse was a Native American sport hundreds of years old, an inter-tribal affair covering many miles.
After the being-whacked drills, we start the main exercise: attack versus defence. It is six-a-side because the offside rule means that only six of a team’s 10 outfield players can be in the same half. A lacrosse goal is six feet square and you can run behind it. The defenders stand in a fairly tight circle and the attackers fling the ball briskly around them, trying to draw them out and looking for gaps. When they see one they cut inside and there is an almighty clatter of sticks and shoulders that looks as if it can’t possibly be legal, and then either the defence has the ball somehow or an attacker flings it at the keeper, who stops a surprising number. As in hockey, the keeper is the big guy. He has the biggest net on his stick, too.
When I take my turn, I find it relatively easy to find space to receive the ball. This could be because hockey has made me spatially aware or it could be because the defenders know I will drop the ball. They either let me pick it up and make a terrible pass, or, if they are trying to show me what would happen in a game, they whack me and run away with the ball.
Keith pulls me aside and tells me to get ready to defend. Former England captain Chris Bland gives me some tips. These consist mainly of, “Hit me harder. No, come on, properly, really hit me. Harder.” I fondly imagine that at least I’ll be able to mark my man. I look at him, look around to see where the ball has gone, lose a fraction of a second because it isn’t where I thought, and then see it whizzing past my head. My man catches it and scores. In hockey you watch the ball as much the player. In lacrosse, with the aerial dimension, you have to focus more on the player, because the second someone’s in space, a pass can fly in from anywhere. “Mark number 16,” someone says. I do. Number 16 sidesteps me, I fall on my bum and he scores.
I still think, though, that my hockey team would pick up lacrosse pretty quickly, and be able to play a basic club game. But that is a long way from what these guys are doing. Someone tries to explain what’s going on, realises I don’t understand enough even to follow him, whacks me and laughs.
‘Crosse purpose: essential equipment for beginners
Beginners should look for a wide-throated net, which offers less control with passing but makes catching easier: try the STX AV8 with AL6000 shaft at £50.95 from prolaxshop.com is a good option. Ask for advice on stringing: a badly strung net is hard to play with.
You are legally required to wear one. They range in price – you can get a Bauer from hattersleysonline.co.uk for £65 which seems a good place to start, or go for Cascade CLH2 for £110. Try on helmets at your local club to get a sense of the size you need as well as levels of comfort.
Absolutely essential and seriously good – you barely feel someone hitting your hand with a stick. A good range of Brine gloves is available at prolaxshop.com and they range from about £80 to nearly £200. You should probably get armguards as well, and there are plenty of other padding options.