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Netherlands v Wales - EC16 Quarterfinals International lacrosse rules

International Lacrosse Rules: Time For Change

The international lacrosse rules used in most events are quite different from those used for NCAA, NFHS, or MLL rules. Here’s one rule that needs to change!

The international lacrosse rules used in most international games and events are quite different from those used for NCAA, NFHS, or MLL play. While I could give you a full rundown of all the differences, I will spare you the details, and go over the biggest, and weirdest, differences quickly. Then I will explain why one of these rules really needs to be changed if the game wants to see continued growth around the world.

Photo Credit: Oskar Polak – SniperPix

2016 European Lacrosse Championships - Day 3

Biggest & Weirdest International Lacrosse Rules Differences

  • The Dive is legal in international play. I saw a ton of diving goals at the EC16, and it was awesome, and exciting. Did some goalies get hit? Yes. Did anyone get injured? Yes, a little bit. Most of the time it was the diving player that got hurt, and not badly. I like the dive, please don’t sue me. I say keep it in international lacrosse. Is it a little dangerous? Sure is, but so is a lot of other stuff. Is the Dive really any worse?
  • The penalty… chair. Chair? Chair. That’s right, when you are given a penalty you have to run off the field, and sit down in a white lawn chair. I guess the chair doesn’t have to be white, or made for cookouts, but that’s usually the case. You do have to sit in the chair for your penalty time to start. It’s kind of magical. I love this rule, as seemingly arbitrary as it is.
  • Bending your head back. After a face off player has won a draw, they can bend their head back into shape (with the ball still in the pocket!), as long as no one is around them. It’s rarely done, but when you see it for the first time, it’s shocking, and excellent. It also makes a lot of sense. No one is near you, and your equipment is funky, so the refs let you fix it. This rule is bizarre but genius.
  • Roster limits – big fan. I like how rosters are limited to 23 guys for FIL games. It means there is no free ride, and good teams need everyone to contribute. Factor in that teams can play 8 games in 10 days, and it’s even more impressive. MLL and FIL have it right for what they are. I doubt this would fly stateside in NCAA or NFHS, but I like it nonetheless. When I played in Perth in 2001, we were limited to 15 players. That may be overkill, but I got to play every position on the field in multiple games, and that was kind of awesome… so yeah. Limited rosters can be amazing.
  • No Clocks, No Real Stall, NOTHING…

International Lacrosse Rules – ONE CHANGE?

Ok, this is where I break off from the bullet point approach above and go full bore on one issue, my main pet peeve with international lacrosse: It can be PAINFULLY SLOW. This is due to an antiquated stall system.

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The below scenario can, does, and will continue to, happen under current international rules:

  • Team B is up 4-1 over Team A near the beginning of the 3rd quarter.
  • It’s a tight game so far, with good chances for both sides, even though the margin is 3 goals.
  • Team A takes a shot, and Team B’s goalie makes a save.
  • Now we count the minutes:

The goalie remains in his crease for 3 seconds (3 seconds elapsed) and then throws the ball to a defenseman. The D and goalie then play keep away for 2 minutes while the refs confer about putting on an “advance the ball” warning, which is more or less meaningless, and rarely called. The goalie gets in trouble, so he throws the ball into the back of the net, re-enters the crease, and gains a new 4 second count (2:37 elapsed). This is a real rule and it’s legal. The goalie and D then throw the ball around for another minute, “attempting” to clear the ball (3:37 elapsed).

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The refs now put on a “get it in and keep it in” warning. The goalie and D slowly press down the field, and after another two minutes of a slow clear, get the ball to a middie just over midfield (4:37 elapsed). As long as they move forward a bit, the refs won’t penalize them, and the players know this well. The middie shares the ball with other middies, but none get it in the box. None go back over midfield. The refs once again admonish the players to “get it in”, and after 2 more minutes, Team B finally “clears” the ball and gets it into their offensive box. 6 minutes and 37 seconds have gone by.

The stall is now actually on, and the ball has been cleared successfully.

Things do not speed up.

2016 Euro Lacrosse Championships - Day 6

Team B now possesses in the giant box for 2 minutes. Remember, these is no side restraining box in international rules. The offensive box runs a FULL quarter of the field, from sideline to sideline. 8 minutes and 37 seconds have now passed since we last saw a shot on goal. Team B calls a timeout, and while the clock doesn’t run, the fans are now a good 9 minutes and 37 seconds without an attempt at goal. Team B cycles the ball around for another 2 minutes after the time out, and eventually takes a shot, which is off goal. The possession continues, and eventually a shot is taken that results in a goal or a save. Approximately 13 minutes and 7 seconds have now passed since the last shot on goal.

Team A could still be up three goals, but the whole tone of the game just changed from ONE POSSESSION where nothing really happened. That is not the fastest game on two feet. That’s not even a fast game in general, let alone THE FASTEST! It’s a joke, and I’ve seen it too many times to let it pass any longer without begging for change. It happened at the 2014 Worlds, U19s this Summer, and EC16 just a few weeks back. I don’t blame the teams for doing it, as it’s legal. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

The current stall structure in the international lacrosse rules rewards conservatism, over-coaching, and boring play. It puts little at risk, and is not enjoyable to play or watch. It does not promote stick skills or creativity in any way, shape, or form. It promotes a chess match, which is great if you want to watch chess. I want to watch lacrosse.

PLENTY of teams don’t do this right now, but the smartest teams (and the weakest) usually utilize it somehow. Some more than others. As things get more competitive in the world game, coaches WILL use it more to win tight games. It’s only natural. The best bet, if we want to find a real solution, is to get ahead of the problem. The rule may not need to be changed now, but I really hope it is. A future of stall ball terrifies me.

But how do you know this is the future, when it hasn’t happened in the past?

Perhaps the rule is just a holdover from the earlier days of international lacrosse. Pockets were shallower, heads were wider, and takeaway artists still roamed the playing fields. Playing slow was a risk back then! There was no need to promote scoring. But now? Nowadays, playing slow is playing smart. Sets, plays, rotations, ball carriers, and team concepts overshadow skill, desire, and creativity for far too many programs. Too much time is spent on not making mistakes, and not enough time is spent on creating chaos, and then thriving on it.

2016 Euro Lacrosse Championships - Day 6

Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate a good slow clear, and I can also appreciate a methodical offense. Both can be exciting and interesting to watch, and I don’t want to remove either from the game. But I don’t want to teams to run a slow clear, an overly methodical offense, AND slow the game way down just because they are up or down a couple of goals. It’s just all too much when done together. So while I’m going to propose a shot clock, it’s nothing like we’ve ever seen before, and it keeps the game simple as can be, while maintaining the integrity of the game.

Did I just set myself up for failure? Lofty goals will do that.

So here is the rule I am proposing for International Lacrosse Rules events:

NEW RULE: When either team (Team A or Team B) gains clear possession of the ball, a 3-minute long shot clock will start. This will be communicated via the head referees by giving a thumbs up signal with his/her arm extended above their head and yelling “possession”. Shot clocks will remain in effect through Extra Man, Man Down, and Time Out situations. The “get it in, keep it in” rule will be removed from the Rule Book completely. Teams will be responsible for keeping their own “approximate” shot clocks on the sidelines for reference. Official shot clock time will be kept by the referees. Goalies will only get one 4-second count per possession.

With this new rule, and two old rules removed, NOTHING is left up to chance or discretion. Stalls no longer exist, and everyone plays by the same standards from beginning to end. Refs need only ONE clock to count, and this “new call” is actually the same as a possession call, which refs are already making after each face off.

So it’s not brand new, it’s simpler than what exists now, AND it allows for teams to clear as slowly as is reasonable OR hold for long possessions. It simply doesn’t allow either in the extreme. Each quarter, we would be guaranteed at LEAST seven different possessions, and 28 per game. I have seen international games with only 2-3 possessions in a quarter. It is not ideal.

2016 Euro Lacrosse Championships - Day 6

For the good of the game, that ultra-slow pace can not be allowed to continue. For the sake of the players, who will play many games in as many days, it does not require a constant break neck speed, and still allows for slower moments in games. It’s a middle ground, and it’s simple.

Incentivizing offense rarely works. Coaches work around it, and find ways to be conservative in their approach, because that is what allows them to win (or at least they think it’s what allows them to win). So the best option is to specifically penalize slow play. If you clear the ball slowly, you better run a fast offense. If you run a slow O, you don’t have time to run a slow clear. It FORCES teams to make a choice, to run, and to play with urgency all game long. It creates more interactions, more meaningful plays in a game, and less down time.

Now for those of you who are worried about blowouts, and how this rule could make them worse, I will pose this to you:

If Team A is willing to hold the ball for 12 minutes at a time because they are up 12-1 in the third quarter, wouldn’t they also be willing to take some “bad” shots, so the score doesn’t get out of hand? The rule doesn’t force people to score, only to shoot. Classy teams will find ways not to embarrass their opponents, less classy teams will not. This rule will not create more blowouts or reduce the behavior of classy programs.

The game of lacrosse can be played a lot of ways. I don’t want to limit that completely, but I do want to place a cap on how slowly and methodically a team can play. Requiring a shot on cage within 3 minutes of a team gaining possession is reasonable, and good for the sport. Teams will need to create, and press, but can still play their own style of lacrosse.

2016 Euro Lacrosse Championships - Day 6

Will certain teams pack it in on D, forget about the ride, and just try to play 3 good minutes of D? Probably. This means offenses will need to be able to create, catch and finish inside, and shoot from the outside… but isn’t that the goal already? A good offense can slice up a good defense in 3 minutes. It’s more than enough time. And if you’re not good enough to slice up an offense, maybe it’s time to learn that the hard way. There is no better motivator than facing up to one’s shortcomings directly.

I’m also not opposed to the FIL trying a 2 minute clock, or a 4 minute clock. I’m not set on 3 minutes, as long as there is some sort of clock! Allow the game to be played fast or slow, I’m all for that. But don’t let it slow down into 10-12 minute possessions. It’s not exciting, it won’t get lacrosse into the Olympics, and it won’t bring in new players and fans.

Keep it fast, keep it fun, keep it creative, and keep it as simple as possible. This is lacrosse after all.

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