Sunday, July 23, 2006

Musings on Bermuda and the World: Overanalysis of the World Lacrosse Championships

My initial reaction upon compiling the final rankings from the World Lacrosse Championships was that the sixth place team (Japan) should not be 1-6 when the ninth place team (Finland) is 6-1. The analogy that keeps coming to mind is if David Stern forced the Knicks into the playoffs over the Grizzlies. I’m not sure if that’s accurate, but it sure looks that way based purely on record.

However, this is the natural result of grouping the best six teams into one division at the outset of the tournament. It’d be like if the NFL regrouped every year so that the final four teams played in the same division the next season. Now THAT would enforce parity: put the best four teams into NFL Division 1, the next best four teams into NFL Division 2, etc. Seriously, who would win the NFLD1 this season - Pittsburgh, Seattle, Washington, or Denver? Who would have won it last season – New England, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Atlanta? Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Tags.

In the World Lacrosse Championships, though, it creates the not-incorrect impression that it’s the US and Canada playing for the title; Australia, the Iroquois and England competing for the bronze; Japan basically guaranteed the sixth spot by virtue of being square in the middle of the world powers and everyone else; and everyone else beating each other up for placement. The Japanese can’t beat the first or second tier powers but they can’t be beaten by anyone else. Check out Pointstreak for their very complete final division standings (reflecting the placing and medal games as well) and the revealing points scored, etc. stats.

Before getting into the rather shocking US loss, let me first address my two favorite teams: Bermuda and the Iroquois.

Although the team started out as little more than a ready made punch- and headline, a little research revealed that there is a very good reason why Bermuda (let’s be honest) sucks at lacrosse: they only started playing three years ago. As of January 2005, there were only 30 players in the island’s organized lacrosse club. One LaxPower forum contributor points out that the sport was brought to the island by North American expats, and another sport from British expats, rugby, grew rapidly in the small country; Bermuda now hosts one of the most competitive rugby tournaments in the world and has a pretty solid team. Look for this team to improve in the 2010 championships.

In contrast, the Iroquois have played lacrosse for hundred of years. They have to be disappointed with their finish this year. Fourth place is not an unrealistic final place for them, or even a bad one, but they were in a position to medal. More than that, going in to the tournament, I bet they thought they could sneak by at least one of the US-Canada double-headed monster. A silver or even gold medal was a reach, but still possible. Unfortunately, as lacrosse grows in popularity internationally, it will be harder and harder for the Iroquois to field teams that are internationally strong. They have a total population of about 75,000 people. Statistically they have fewer world class athletes to draw on from their population than countries like Australia (20 million people) and England (50 million) where lacrosse is becoming more widely played.

Granted, the Iroquois love lacrosse like the English love soccer and Australia loves beating the shit out of people, er, I mean Aussie Rules Football. Even though there are fewer world class athletes, more of them want to play lacrosse. For the time being and for the near future, that should off set the disparity in population. But if lacrosse continues to become more popular across the world, that balancing agent will become moot. After 2010, the Iroquois may be hard pressed to rank as high as 4th again.

Onto the championship game. For the first time in almost three decades, the US lost a match, and it was to the same country they lost the last time – Canada. What does this mean for American lacrosse and the game internationally? Well, contrary to what some people on LaxPower have been insisting, it doesn’t mean that the entire US program needs to be overhauled. The team was great until the very last game… when they played against a very good team on its home turf. And Canadians care about lacrosse too. They cheered and supported the home team the way they should have. They influenced the game and to lose to the Canucks under those circumstances doesn’t require an overhaul of the whole system. This is not USA Basketball circa 2002.

And in fact, this is very good for the sport internationally. The US has been dominant in the World Championships for years, not losing a game since 1978. Competition is good. This result will certainly help lacrosse in Canada, and the idea that the dominant power in the world is vulnerable will help the sport in other countries too. With the championships over and the rankings final, each team has someone to gun for: the US wants to take down Canada, Australia and Iroquois want to move into silver or gold contention, Ireland would love to displace England as the dominant British Isles team, and Bermuda is hoping to beat somebody…. ANYBODY.

Look for this sport to move closer to the center in the next few years and to actually get some major screen time on ESPN in 2010. People should take notice now so they can make fun of the band wagon jumpers in four years. Trust me – it makes you feel smarter than you actually are.


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