A game with stickability

Dave Hadfield heads for the beach to witness the preservation of an old school sport
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The Independent Online
Connoisseurs of esoteric ball games played on just one wind-scoured stretch of Lancashire beach will be relieved to hear this: the future of Rossall hockey is safe. Since 1863, generations of blue-kneed boys - and, more recently, girls - from Rossall School have played this quirky team sport on the foreshore between Blackpool and Fleetwood.

Quirky? Well, how else would you describe a game that gives you a stick and then rarely allows you to hit the ball with it? Character- building? "I'd describe it as a cross between hockey and rugby," says Tony Todd, the head of games, who has been supervising this arcane ritual for the last 20-odd years. "It's a dribbling game, not a striking game. It's good fun, but it takes the kids until the upper sixth before they really learn how to play it properly."

Ever since the game was introduced from Eton - where it has long since faded into disuse - Rossall hockey has been played in the term between Christmas and Easter. As befits an institution whose own printed history is entitled "A Very Desolate Position", Rossall does not really have spring or summer terms; just three winter ones. A hybrid game on the sands has proved useful over the years when the playing fields have been frozen, flooded or both.

Conventional hockey and rugby union are Rossall's mainstream sports and Rossall hockey contains elements of both. It is played on a hockey pitch marked out between the groynes on the sands - an art-form in itself - but it starts with a species of scrum, with sticks protruding from its flanks like galley-oars, and develops into a form of continuous, armed rolling maul.

It is not a spectator sport - indeed, the occasional locals walking their dogs on the beach ignore it completely although the dogs themselves can become quite agitated by the sight of 18 highly educated youths wielding sticks. The participants, however, claim to enjoy it enormously, even though they are only permitted tracksuit bottoms in what are often Arctic conditions.

They don't have much choice but to participate cheerfully; even future rugby luminaries such as Peter Winterbottom and Liam Botham have been required to take this sport as seriously as their own. "Everyone has to have a go at it," says Todd, "although the girls have their own competition. And it's all inter-house, because there's no one else to play."

There's the rub. With such a limited market, Rossall's previous supplier of sticks - which resemble National Health walking sticks left against a radiator for too long and partially straightened - went out of business. For a while it looked as though the game would go the same way, until the world's largest manufacturer of lacrosse sticks - in Eccles - came to the rescue.

The new weapons are not strictly traditional, being made of hickory rather than the original ash. Some of the old ash artefacts still survive, handed down from father to son and highly decorated, but the new ones stand up better to the sand and salt-water and the school expects to be fully equipped well into the next millennium. "It's important to keep these traditions going," says Todd, as the sixth-formers of Spreadeagle and Mitre Fleur de Lys houses scratch out the markings on a stretch of sand that looks suitable.

Spreadeagle are the school champions - if I had a fiver for every time they told me that, I would be close to the pounds 3,500 a term it would cost to send one of my own offspring to this very desolate place - and they prove too good for their opposition.

Close control is all in Rossall hockey, because failure to keep in contact with the ball results in a hand-over of possession. If a member of the stick-wielding ruck gets ahead of the ball, he must loop around, rugby- style, and tag on to the back. Only when they reach their opponents' semi- circular goal area can they shoot and Spreadeagle prove distinctly more efficient at this, putting the ball between Mitre Fleur de Lys' posts three times.

There are, inevitably, excuses. The sand is too dry and cuts up under the onslaught too easily. What old-style Rossall hockey would have done to the beach must have been a sight to see. "The whole school used to play in one huge game," says Todd. "Since then, teams have been cut down to nine-a-side." Even so, in the height of the house-match season, there can be a series of games taking place simultaneously on the sands, ranging from strapping sixth-formers to shivering novices.

Rossall hockey has proved a survivor with real stickability and is likely to be depleting the hickory woods and driving the dogs wild well into the next century.