0 Lacrosse roads?

Lacrosse2.jpgA sport sidelined for decades is enjoying a groundswell of interest but is still battling a shortfall of adequate facilities.

Tom James on the issues facing lacrosse

Lacrosse first came to England in 1867 when a group of visiting Canadian players staged a series of exhibition matches.

In 1892, the first national lacrosse body - the English Lacrosse Union - was formed but it was only in 1996 that government of the men's and women's game came under one umbrella body when the ELU and the All England Women's Lacrosse Association became a single entity.

In the UK there has long existed a close-knit, dedicated following for the men's version of this minority sport. Lacrosse formed a staple diet for many girls attending private schools where a non-contact version of the sport sprang up.

But, in recent years, lacrosse's popularity has flourished on a wider footing and appears to be entering a new phase in its redevelopment as participation across a spread of age groups grows and hybrid forms emerge in a drive to attract younger players.

That re-emergence is set for a major boost in 2010 when the men's Lacrosse World Championships come to Britain, with Manchester playing host to the game's elite.

Lacrosse is an exhilarating participation sport with teams of ten players (nine outfield and one goalkeeper) armed with lacrosse sticks battling it out in, what are often, frenetically paced, high-scoring matches. The scoreline usually outstrips that of a football or hockey match and the game is often equally as exciting to watch.Lacroose1.jpg

Due to the sports high-impact, fast flowing, vigorous nature, the playing surface often doesn't fare so well, with a traditional winter's scene being one of players wading through mud to prise out the solid rubber, tennis-ball sized ball from the depths.

To see lacrosse played at its best, therefore, requires a firm surface, be it natural grass or synthetic turf, although the game is mostly played on grass in the UK.

Lacrosse is emerging strongly as an alternative sport particularly in the university sector, where undergraduates increasingly view it as something that bit different from the usual offering, says Ashley Tarran-Jones of the ELA.

No surprise then that a thriving grass-roots movement is propelling participation beyond the colleges into mainstream sporting life.

Graduates who have taken up lacrosse at university want to continue their progress in the sport. The nationwide dearth of facilities is not deterring them however, as they seize the initiative and launch new clubs, particularly in the south (for long the poor relation of the sport's traditional northern stronghold) 'on the margin' with little, if any, funding, Ashley explains.

Lacrosse is now poised for healthy growth as the southern league structure builds to accommodate youth, senior and veteran players in its infrastructure.
Despite the sorry demise of lacrosse within secondary schools (the sport is said to be costly to include in the curriculum) it is thriving in tertiary education. However, moves are afoot to reinvent the sport in schools, the ELA reports.

In Sussex, University of Kent sports science graduate Chris White has masterminded the creation of East Grinstead lacrosse club from a standing start. His Canterbury college was the spark that ignited a passion for the sport and he first played the game as mixed lacrosse - a non-contact form. After helping establish a men's club there he graduated, then joined Walcountian Blues in Woodmansterne, Surrey, a member of the South of England Men's Lacrosse Association (SEMLA).

In 2004, Chris, now retrained as a PE teacher, and several friends, decided to set up a club nearer their homes in East Grinstead. "We stumbled around looking for a ground until, in 2005, we approached East Grinstead Rugby Club, which ran a floodlit, concreted area and they allowed us to train there."

That was the start of a rapid rise to prominence locally. The 2005/6 lacrosse season saw the team finish runners-up in the SEMLA second division. The following year they were promoted into the premier division, where they were battling against the south's big teams such as Reading.

Now with more than 60 members, including juniors and women, the club has formed a second team and shows no sign of slowing its progress.

"The rugby club runs three grass pitches and they have said that the second team's is ours to use," says Chris. "We're looking to improve the drainage system so that we play on firmer ground as the pitch can become quite rutted." They do have an emergency plan when weather prevents play - the nearby Astroturf surface at East Grinstead Hockey Club serving the purpose.

Chris is a big fan of synthetic surfaces. "The 3G pitch is great for lacrosse. Games on it never get rained off and the surface allows the game to be played far more in the air, rLacrosse4.jpgather than on the ground trying to dig out the ball from a muddy pitch. Top teams such as Reading and Purley play on cricket outfields, which, in my view, is similar to a 3G pitch in feel.

But the relationship with the rugby club is a symbiotic rather than a parasitic one, Chris stresses. "The club like us because we bring more people on to the site and help them increase bar revenue, so there are gains for both sides."

Private clubs such as East Grinstead stand every chance of surviving and thriving, once they find a permanent base, if only because members are more likely to have the means to fund the day to day running costs, membership fees and, perhaps, even ground maintenance.

Interest in lacrosse is being developed strongly, thanks to the ELA and their equivalents in Wales and Scotland developing coaching programmes. The ELA for example, employs mostly American coaches to train the sport at junior level, not surprising perhaps given the USA's dominance of the game. What does raise the eyebrows though is the renewed level of interest from girls in the non-contact variation of lacrosse, although women also enjoy the physical side of the sport too, Ashley Tarran-Jones remarks.

The junior leagues have witnessed a wave of new teams entering the fray, especially in the south. "These variations on the full game allow younger players, or those with less experience, to be introduced slowly to the full contact version," explains Ashley.

At the other end of the scale, senior lacrosse has seen an explosion of interest in the US. "The Grand Master and Super Grand Master leagues have proved popular", says Ashley, "and that interest is spilling over into the UK."

The sport's northern stronghold has released its grip of late as the south beefs up its presence, raising skill levels, establishing clubs and staging new tournaments. For evidence of this change in fortunes, look no further than the annual lacrosse showpiece held at Bath Recreation Ground in early September.

On the world stage, the 2010 championships could present a golden opportunity for the sport to stamp itself on the sporting agenda but, stresses Ashley, "there are no great claims of legacy to be made, especially at a time when legacy of world sports events is being scrutinised."

Proof of that is plain to see only a stone's throw from the ELA's offices in east Manchester, where underused hockey pitches, laid for the Commonwealth Games held in the city in 2002, present a forlorn reminder of the need to maintain continuity of function afterwards. However, "the 2010 games will mark the next stage of lacrosse development in the UK", he states.

Clearly the ELA is keen to use 2010 as a vehicle for recruiting lacrosse enthusiasts to the sport. The championships are being hosted by Manchester University, who are already supplying the country with a number of emerging talents, such as Elaine Radcliffe, who hopes to reach national level soon.

The University plans to lay artificial pitches for the championships, a decision that serves to highlight the dilemma the game presently confronts. A firm, well-maintained surface is crucial to allow the pace and artistry of the game to come through, particularly the twists and turns of both attacking and defensive play.

The USA, the world champions and currently the sport's biggest participators, have decided that "turf" - their term for synthetic grass - is the surface of choice. Pristine pitches, therefore, almost come as standard - players expect them. In the UK, however, surfaces are largely 'marginalised' - lacrosse is played on the cricket outfields or practised on artificial surfaces that are designed for a number of sports, such as hockey or, as the Manchester University pitches will demonstrate, for multi use and, therefore, not always appropriate for the high impact, physical nature of lacrosse.

"There is no weight of opinion favouring either type of surface currently," Ashley Tarran-Jones says but adds: "Given the increasingly wet winters and long recovery time of the pitches, opinion is moving towards artificial."Lacrosse3.jpg

"The weather is beginning to put pressure on governing bodies to modify playing seasons in a number of sports," he continues. "Some suggest that lacrosse should become a summer sport because it can be played in better weather and on firmer ground. The shifting demands of lacrosse are now coming up against those of cricket".

Also there is the issue of grass seeding, as Chris White explains. "Seeding needs to be done much earlier in the year to help the pitches recover more completely."

Adherents of synthetic pitches, such as Chris White, believe that 3G rubber crumb surfaces of the kind laid the US, offer perhaps the best surface for lacrosse to be played at its best.

The downside is that they are relatively expensive to install. "The reality of lacrosse-specific surfaces, or even a lacrosse specific sports arena, is still some way off, because of the emphasis in the UK on laying artificial pitches for multi-use, which means that quality could be sacrificed" says Ashley.

At the top end of the sport, and in the traditional North-western heartland of the game, are clubs such as Timperley. Five miles south of Manchester city centre, and founded in 1877, it is one of the oldest private sports clubs in the UK and incorporates lacrosse, cricket and hockey, enjoying first-class facilities that include a new clubhouse, two artificial pitches and two cricket areas.

The club offers structured junior development programmes in lacrosse (as well as cricket and hockey) starting from introductory level based on fun and participation and progressing to selection by county or regional teams for many of its 700 members.

But, even at the highest level, lacrosse plays second fiddle in terms of pitch priorities and allocated time to other more widely played counterparts.

"The irony is that club lacrosse is a profitable sport yet often has to be played on cricket outfields" says Ashley. "Cricket, on the other hand, makes a loss year in year out at club level but still pulls rank, as does hockey."

In a move to safeguard precious playing time and pitches, lacrosse is moving in other directions, linking with another nationally-based sport, rugby, for example, to place its future on arguably a more secure footing.

Until their is the assured availability of high quality surfaces on which lacrosse can be played, groundstaff are forced into a juggling act to optimise conditions for sports whose playing demands clearly conflict.

Typical of the problem is Cheadle (Kingsway) Sports Club, sited, like Timperley, only a few miles from central Manchester and also a top-flight lacrosse club vying consistently for league title honours.

The club offers bowls, tennis, cricket, hockey and lacrosse facilities for members, so must act accordingly when seasonal demand for pitches comes into play.

Lacrosse's September-March playing season means rarely a season passes without officials calling off at least one game due to inclement conditions, although players expect to compete in the worst that Britain's increasingly unpredictable weather can throw at them.

Cheadle suffers, as many other smaller private clubs do, from a constrained grounds maintenance budget and a game called off delivers the double whammy of lost bar and catering revenue and a more crowded fixture list later in the season.

The hiring of groundsman, Ian Barber, in December 2005, however, has heralded a most welcome about turn in the scheme of things. One for a challenge, Ian left his job at Leeds United FC because of the demands of commuting from Stockport, where he had moved to for personal reasons.

"The travel was killing me," says 34-year-old Ian, who also enjoyed spells at Headingley Stadium, working on cricket and rugby pitches, and at Thorpe Arch, home to more than ten full-size natural and artificial grass football pitches. "The move made my lifestyle easier and working at Cheadle to a strict, tight budget, presented a fresh challenge."

Drainage is the single most important aspect of his job that Ian has brought to the club. A critical element in the equation of sporting provision as he explains. "If we were purely a lacrosse club, there would be no problem, but Cheadle is a multi-sports club and I have to take the playing requirements of all of them into account, not just lacrosse.

"I'm standing here with just three weeks to go to the start of the cricket season, and there's still at least one more lacrosse fixture left." Cheadle's two lacrosse pitches cover the cricket outfield and, as Ian stresses "I have to view the bigger picture. Cricketers would not be pleased to have the ball popping up and hitting them in the face because the outfield needed attention."

"If an 'A' team lacrosse fixture has to succumb to the weather at this time of year, that's a professional decision that I'm prepared to stomach, giving, as it does, more time for the grass to recover before cricket begins. I can always arrange with Kingsway School next door to take the game," he says.

A first team fixture, however, which may affect the placings at the top of the lacrosse league, is a different matter, concedes Ian, who is fully aware of the balancing act he faces week in week out.

"If I call a game off, forty people will not be buying drinks and food in the bar. If I let them play and they cut the pitch up rough, I'll be applying as much as ten tonnes of sand afterwards and there's the cost of doing that to consider."

Ian maintains a controlled weekly programme of work on the two pitches.

After the Saturday game, Monday sees him forking, replacing divots and repairing any surface scars, then rolling, followed by slitting of the largely clay-based pitches during the week.

"I mark out the pitches on Friday, stringing out the lines to ensure an arrow-straight result and making them as bright as possible with the transfer wheel marker. Bright, straight lines are important. They take people's eye when they first arrive."

At this time of year, Ian brings in the contractor and the 40 tonnes of medium sand that they'll be spreading over the two lacrosse pitches that will shortly transform into the cricket outfield.

"They'll vertidrain down to 12 or 13 inches then disk seed using twelve bags of DLF Pro 80 Renovation mix. It's a good winter sports pitch mix. Although it's the cricket outfield, if I used a cheaper mix, the grass would kick out early after the lacrosse season starts in later September."

"After cutting the cricket outfield 'really short' I then maintains it at 27-28mm depth for protection to ensure the lacrosse season begins at full throttle. I'll be confident of a lush, green, flat outfield ready for cricket."

The four lacrosse goalmouths are bare by now so come in for extra attention, "I'll be hiring a post-hole borer for using around each goalmouth, going down to about 22 inches, backfilling with 10cm of gravel to within two inches of the surface then use a 50/50 divot mix to top the holes up."

Given that the cricket season is looming large, Ian admits that fertilizer is not on his shopping list. "I don't use it on the lacrosse pitches as I'm happy with the colour of the sward and I'm on a tight budget," he says.

In the winter, Ian will aim to vertidrain the lacrosse pitches "at least once" during the season. The contractor last performed the task three weeks before Christmas in an effort to keep the playing surface as open as possible. "Because we have clay soil here, we can be prone to waterlogging," says Ian.

Outsiders might argue that the sport presents a relatively unsexy image, failing to conjure up a David Beckham or Jonny Wilkinson-style role model from its ranks to foster frenzied support and to lead the game to new heights.

The 1990s witnessed the dominance of the world game by America's Gates brothers and they certainly heightened the level of interest and participation in the USA with their break from traditional modes of play.

Today, rising stars such as John Grant Junior could gain celebrity status, but whether they attain the iconic prominence of say a Beckham, remains to be seen.

What is certain, however, is that after decades of decline, lacrosse is beginning to move up the sporting agenda in Britain, and 2010 may just be the blue touch paper the game needs to ignite a firecracker of support for, and participation in, a tough, highly skilled and thrilling game.

The surfaces certainly exist to ensure that the best attributes of lacrosse can shine forth. Perhaps the final word on that should go to Ian Barber, who delivers a rather chilling prediction for lovers of natural surfaces.

"There will come a time when grass won't exist. It'll be synthetics for all sports, with no problems of frost or waterlogging. When I started in the industry 18 years ago, synthetic pitches were just developing. They've come on so much since then that international football matches are played on them. Things are progressing to the stage that I believe that synthetic surfaces will become the standard."

That might be the time when lacrosse truly comes into its own.

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