Lacrosse: Striking out to shed the old school ties: Paul Hayward reports from Milton Keynes on the missionary zeal of the England lacrosse players

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The Independent Online
A RAIN-SPLASHED day in Milton Keynes and lacrosse is labouring again to escape its St Trinian's image. 'When people meet me,' Jacqueline Lunn, chief executive of the All England Women's Lacrosse Association, says, 'they expect me to talk like Joyce Grenfell. I don't'

Hard though you look as Young England sling their way to a 9-9 draw with Canada in 'typical lacrosse conditions (miserable)', there is no George Cole character selling the girls fags and knicker elastic from a sales pitch behind a bush.

These days the sport is peddling a cycling-shorts-and-bandanna image to offset the old ideas about pleated skirts and ponytails, though under the current rules a skirt must be worn over the Tour de France gear.

The mayor of Milton Keynes has risked his chains of office going rusty to stand between the polite applause of the England supporters and the shouts of 'Way-da-go Canada . . .' emanating from the visitors' benches. Later he retires to the clubhouse, doubtless happy that his utilitarians' dream town is assisting this engaging sport in overcoming prejudices.

Lacrosse, for the uninitiated, involves wielding a stick with a net on the end and thereby throwing a hard rubber ball around a loosely defined pitch until somebody is close enough to flash it past the goalkeeper. They say loosely defined because there are no touchlines as such, and it is left to the umpires (who dress like American football officials) to decide when the field of play has become unacceptably large.

You could imagine fishing in icy waters with a lacrosse stick, or pinching a neighbour's apples without even stepping on his land. The game began as a form of inter-village warfare between American Indians, who are said to have used human skulls when the supply of balls ran short, thus putting a whole new spin on the notion of losing your head during a game.

Queen Victoria liked lacrosse because it enabled 'the gels' to keep a good stiff back rather than stoop in pursuit of a hockey ball, and with royal approval the beskirted youth of fee-paying England was whipping every nation unwise enough to enter the arena. Trouble is, in the process of providing punchbags, countries such as Australia and Canada learned how to play. Echoes from the Long Room?

Lunn, who refers repeatedly to 'the St Trinian's thing', says her biggest obstacle is the belief that lacrosse is played by a 'load of public school girls', though she admits that most of the Young England team come from 'independent schools' (the currently fashionable term).

'Pop lacrosse (a mini-version) is played by 40,000 kids in this country and we've reached 250 state schools,' she says. Many PE teachers, however, ask 'La-what?' when implored to make room on sports schedules. Schoolboys become rather keener when they discover they can wear helmets and padding and so enter warrior mode to settle scores with their classmates.

Promotion is not the only problem. Lacrosse is too fast to televise (you need a rubber neck and The Terminator's eyesight to follow it) and many parents consider it dangerous. At half-time yesterday they produced segments of oranges for the puffing, stick-clutching girls, but you wondered whether high-dosage glucose tablets might have provided a more appropriate refresher.

The old guard are said to be resisting the popularisation of their monarch-pleasing pastime, fearing that an influx of grubby-faced baton wavers will remove one more differential of public school life.

But yesterday the Canadian team exchanged high fives, and the game was sold with a classless zeal that will sweep away such snobbery. The 'St Trinian's thing' is dying at last.

(Photograph omitted)