The Irish Mail on Sunday

NET GAINS

With its links to hurling and an extended build-up to Limerick staging the World U19 Championsh­ips next year, lacrosse has definite plans for expansion in Ireland

- By Mark Gallagher

‘THE HAND-EYE CO-ORDINATION FOR LACROSSE AND HURLING IS QUITE SIMILAR’

MICHAEL KENNEDY says he’s someone who can find the silver lining in any situation. Just as well. As chief executive officer of Lacrosse Ireland, he should be nervously gearing up for the biggest event that the sport has ever hosted here – the World Under 19 Men’s Championsh­ip in the University of Limerick.

But like all other plans and preparatio­ns for the summer of 2020, they were thrown into disarray by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Everything had to be placed on hold for a year. With the help of World Lacrosse, the age grade for the world championsh­ips has been raised to U20, so all players who were due to come to Limerick this month can do so next year.

‘Anyone involved in event management will tell you that the one thing you need more of in the lead-up to any big event is time. Well, we have been given an extra 12 months,’ Kennedy says pragmatica­lly. ‘We are a year out from the event, so we are determined to put all that time to good use.’

During his playing career, Kennedy represente­d Ireland in 13 major championsh­ips, between world and European, and he plans to use that experience when the cream of young lacrosse players converge in UL next June. There is a festival in the works, as well as events emphasisin­g the game’s links with hurling.

Lacrosse remains very much a minority sport in Ireland. There’s half-a-dozen senior men’s and women’s clubs and most of them are university teams. It’s probably best known as a distant relation to our national game or maybe for its appearance in the teen comedy classic American Pie

(with character Oz an accomplish­ed player).

However, since being revived in this country back in 2001, it has grown steadily, coinciding with its global expansion. It proclaims to be the fastest-growing sport in the United States, where there are three profession­al leagues.

Hosting a world championsh­ips is seen as a central plank in its developmen­t on these shores.

Kennedy, a New Yorker of Wexford stock, got involved in Irish lacrosse around 2004. He had played the game in high school, growing up on the American east coast. Having come to Ireland to attend college – UL coincident­ally – he met up with a group who had started up a national team.

‘I was approached by another American who was living over here and he was involved in setting up the national teams. He asked would I be interested in playing. And it just went from there,’ he explains.

He captained the national team from 2005 to 2010, pointing out: ‘I retired from the outdoor game then, but kept playing indoor, right up to last September.

‘I played my last game in the indoor world championsh­ips in British Columbia against Serbia. My wife Patrice, we actually met through lacrosse as she played on the women’s national team, and our two boys came on the pitch afterwards. That was a nice memory to have,’ he adds.

In his efforts to establish the game in Ireland, Kennedy researched its roots here and unearthed some interestin­g facts.

Lacrosse had been played in this country in the late 19th century with the first club founded outside

Belfast in 1872.

By the mid-1880s, there were 13 clubs, mostly around Belfast and Co Down although there were also a couple operating in Dublin.

‘In 1886, the men’s national team went on a two-month tour of the east coast of the States and Canada,’ Kennedy explains. ‘If you go into the National Library, there’s a scrapbook of hand-written notes and match reports from that tour. The sport died out around 1902 or 1903, probably due to the growing popularity of Gaelic games, rugby and soccer. But there was women’s lacrosse played in Ireland from 1920 to 1970.’

The parallels to hurling are hard to ignore. Both lay claim to being the fastest field sport in the world. But there are subtle difference­s, as Kennedy points out.

‘Hand-eye co-ordination needed for both games would be similar, but the sticks are actually held differentl­y. In hurling, your stronger hand is lower on the hurl, but in lacrosse, the stronger hand is the higher hand.’

Still, in Limerick next year, they will be hoping to capitalise on the close links between the games. Through a company called Experience Gaelic Games, lacrosse players from around the world will be shown the basics of hurling while it is also hoped that local hurlers will try playing with a lacrosse stick.

There are also plans afoot during the festival for a hybrid hurlinglac­rosse game when it’s hoped a Native American side, representi­ng the Iroquois nation, will compete against a local team.

A number of hybrid matches have already been played in the US, the brainchild of David Wogan, a Dubliner based in California.

‘Since both hurling and lacrosse consider themselves to be the fastest field sports in the world, we wanted to test out how closely connected the games were,’ Wogan is eager to explain.

‘When I moved to California, I joined the OC Wild Geese hurling club and being the open-minded team they are, they were very excited about this crazy idea of hurlacross­e.

‘I discovered that Darmstadt GAA club in Germany had already hosted a similar event, so I got in touch with them and we combined the varations of the rules and hosted a match in Los Angeles in 2018.’

The game was a huge success, leading to an exhibition of hurlacross­e at Croke Park last summer during the GAA World Games.

‘It was a surprise how seamlessly players took to the hybrid sport. The two games flowed perfectly together for a fast-paced game,’

‘WE PLANNED TO GET INTO MORE SCHOOLS BUT COVID-19 INTERVENED’

recalled Wogan, who has now been contacted by a number of GAA clubs in North America who are interested in putting on an exhibition of the hybrid game.

The links with hurling could be something for lacrosse to exploit as it looks to grow its Irish-born playing population.

The national teams still rely heavily on the diaspora from the US and Canada, but Kennedy insists they want all that to change and one of their primary aims is to have 51 per cent of all national teams to be Irishbased in the future.

There are signs that it is possible. Last year, the first women’s U19 team went to compete at the world championsh­ips in Ontario, Canada and all but five of the 20 players in the squad were born in Ireland.

Catherine Conway, who was part of the coaching team, explains that lacrosse is slowly getting into schools around Dublin, and that was where those who played in Canada picked up the sport initially.

‘We had planned to expand our programme to six schools around Dublin this year, but then the coronaviru­s pandemic intervened,’ explained Conway.

‘For a couple of years, we were only in one school, Loreto. Last year, it was two and now we are up to six and there are plans to start a youth programme in Cork too, but they have been shelved because of the pandemic. But it meant we were able to compete at the world U19 championsh­ips last year and only depend on five players that were born in America. We are moving in the right direction.

Conway is another New Yorker, although her family roots are in Donegal and Cork. A talented lacrosse player in high school and college, she was part of the US national squad.

However, when she didn’t get selected for the 2013 world championsh­ips, she sought another challenge in the sport. With her Irish passport, she looked towards her ancestral home.

‘I was probably a bit sore about not making the final cut for the world championsh­ips and just got in touch with Michael to see if there was any opportunit­y in the Irish programme. It happened to be at a good time, because the 2013 European championsh­ips didn’t go too well for the national team and they needed someone to work on defence, so I came in as defensive coach.’

Efforts to expand the game will depend on getting more coaches accredited in Ireland – the growth of schools lacrosse is down to those who played it in college going back to their former secondary schools as a coach – but they also have a goal for any youngsters getting involved as lacrosse hopes to be an Olympic sport by 2028.

It has been an Olympic sport before, in 1904 and 1908, while it was played at an exhibition sport in the Los Angeles Games of 1932. ‘So, the sport has an Olympic history, not like some of the other sports who have got into the Games in the past few years,’ Conway points out.

World lacrosse has intensifie­d efforts to get Olympic recognitio­n. They are devising a variation which would be acceptable to the Internatio­nal Olympic Commitee (IOC), with six players against six players and aligning the rules between the men and women’s game. At present, the men’s game is much more physical than the women’s, where bodychecki­ng is not allowed.

‘We have five national teams at the moment,’ Kennedy says. ‘The men’s team which was establishe­d in 2001, the women’s team came along in 2005, then the men’s indoor team in 2007. In 2016, we establishe­d a men’s U19 team and then a women’s U19 team last year.

‘If it does become an Olympic sport, and they are talking about doing six on six, like the three on three in basketball, we would look at establishi­ng two more national teams in the Olympic style.’

If it is approved as an Olympic sport in eight years time, Kennedy hopes that more of Ireland will have an understand­ing of what lacrosse actually is, and will have tried the sport.

There are currently club teams in UCD, UCC, NUI, Galway, Queen’s and a couple of clubs in Dublin not associated with universiti­es.

The plan is to target other cities and large urban centres. Limerick has been targeted for a while, especially since the world championsh­ips were announced for UL.

‘In my research into the game here, I discovered there might have been an effort to establish a club in Limerick in the 1880s, but I can’t get any concrete informatio­n about it,’ Kennedy says.

However, he reveals that there has been a possible stroke of good fortune in efforts to build a base in the Treaty City as Daryl Waud, a profession­al lacrosse player from Canada, is arriving on Shannonsid­e this September as his partner is due to take up employment in Limerick.

‘He’s moving to Limerick because his girlfriend has a job here, and we have made contact with him. He plays in the indoor profession­al league in North America for Philadelph­ia Wings.

‘That league runs from December to May, so he will be here for a few months and we hope to get him involved in coaching down there, and help us establish a team down there,’ Kennedy continues.

Yet another silver lining in a bad situation.

Irish lacrosse might have to wait another year for its big moment, but those in charge of the game are determined to make that time count.

 ??  ?? HYBRID GAME:
An exhibition of hurlacross­e took place at Croke Park last year
HYBRID GAME: An exhibition of hurlacross­e took place at Croke Park last year
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 ??  ?? FAST TRACK: Lacrosse and hurling are among the quickest field sports
FAST TRACK: Lacrosse and hurling are among the quickest field sports
 ??  ?? SPORTING PIONEER: Michael Kennedy
SPORTING PIONEER: Michael Kennedy

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