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|FIL Rathbones Women’s Lacrosse World Cup|
|Venue: Surrey Sport Park Dates: 12-22 July|
|Coverage: Live video coverage from the quarter-finals onwards on the BBC Sport website and app|
A “living legend”, two American hotshots and a doctor who volunteers on a lifeboat – meet the England World Cup contenders you probably have not heard of.
They play lacrosse. A sport that has origins from a game played by Native Americans, has about 20,500 registered senior players in England, 350 clubs, 222 university teams and is enjoyed by more than 160,000 students in schools.
As 25 nations descend on Surrey for the 10th Women’s World Cup, England, ranked fourth in the world, start their campaign in Guildford on Wednesday against Wales – who are more than just the closest of neighbours as they are also ranked just behind them globally.
This is a team made up of all sorts, who are bonded by a team spirit generated by not only having to earn the privilege to wear an England shirt, but who have had to invest financially in getting themselves and their team-mates on to the field – which they also paid to hire.
“We are amateur and we have to balance things like paying for the physio and where we train,” England captain Laura Merrifield told BBC Sport.
“You definitely have to invest a lot into it, but it also shows that the players are playing because they love the sport, they want to be there.
“There is a huge amount of pride in putting on that shirt after all the sacrifices and hard work that has been put into it.”
Meet the ‘living legend’
Captaining your country at a home World Cup three years after doctors told you that you may never play again would make for a pretty amazing story.
But that is not even the most interesting thing about 29-year-old Merrifield, who is a giant of the game in more ways than one.
At 6ft 1in, she stands above the rest – and she points out that she is “deceptively quick for a big girl” – but she was also among the first British players to truly star in the United States’ thriving college league, where more than 60,000 spectators turn out for their biggest occasions.
In 2010, she won the NCAA title with the University of Maryland, where she was attending on a full scholarship, picked up a championship ring and shook then-President Barack Obama’s hand for her efforts.
“She is a living legend, really,” said England head coach Phil Collier.
“I don’t want to hold her up too much in that way, but she is a leader on and off the field. Players look up to her, she leads by example. She is sort of a Martin Johnson character – she’s the first over the top when something needs doing, she is softly spoken, but when she talks people listen.”
Being the first English-born player to captain her US college team, being one of the few English players to be named in the World Cup All-World Team and leading your country to European gold goes a long way to justifying the legendary status.
It is also enough to have offers of a professional contract in the USA put in front of her.
But what the teacher is focused on is a home World Cup and what is shaping up to be a seminal moment for the sport in England.
Stood on a freshly mowed and marked lacrosse field, with the grey-stoned Wycombe Abbey School where she works in the background, this is a player who takes pride on influencing the next generation one player at a time.
‘A tipping point for lacrosse’
The enormity of pushing for glory on home soil and the exposure it would give the sport is not lost on Merrifield either.
“When we win a medal I think it will be huge for the sport,” Merrifield said. “I don’t want to focus on that too much, because it is one game at a time, but it would be fantastic if we could win a medal.
“I really hope that this summer will be the peak of my career. I can’t wait to get out on the field.”
Merrifield struggles to contain the smiles every time the conversation turns to leading her country out for a home World Cup.
The tough and tiring times – battling back from a chronic shoulder injury, helping to run tournaments, coaching clinics and organising fundraising nights to help pay to get her and her team there – only add to the experience.
“I feel incredibly honoured to be in the position and very excited to take the team to the next level,” she said.
“I absolutely love the sport and will put anything into helping support my team go forward.”
Jane Powell is coming up to four years as a national talent development manager for England lacrosse. She joined the sport after being involved in the Beijing and London Olympics as head of coaching for England hockey, having previously played for England and captained and coached her country in cricket as well.
With little funding going to the sport, most of which goes into the grassroots game, Powell admits the challenges are many.
“I’ve often thought that it is a little bit like playing uphill against the wind and sometimes the referee isn’t on your side. And yet, we can still win,” Powell told BBC Sport.
On the field, there is a pedigree for success – one that has been recently enhanced by a Test series win in Australia, success over the Canadians and a rare moment of leading the USA at half-time in a recent tournament.
“We have to believe that if we are successful, it will help. That is our goal – we will keep being the best that we can be so people recognise what we are doing as a sport,” she added.
“Last year when we played in Australia, it was a tipping point for this squad and self-belief. They are now a more confident team, but for the sport this World Cup could be a tipping point.”
Collier, the first male to coach an England senior women’s side, said they are “already winners” as European champions and after years of dominating the Home Nations Series.
“We shouldn’t go into it with typical English fear of losing that you see in football in particular,” he said. “We go into the World Cup positive, and see it as an opportunity to play our game.
“This is a fantastic chance to inspire the next generation of players and go down in history. This is to be seen as an opportunity and not as a burden. The girls have earned this opportunity, they need to see this as a positive.”
Love Island – England’s secret weapon?
Take your trailblazing England captain and line her up in a team that boasts attacker Megan Whittle, top scorer for American National Collegiate Champions Maryland last season, and Princeton’s Olivia Hompe, who was one of five nominees for the 2017 Tewaaraton Award – given to college lacrosse’s best player – and you “start to give yourself a chance” according to Collier.
Whittle and Hompe are two players who qualify to play for England on parentage and bring an attacking edge with them.
The team is blessed with big characters and battle-hardened athletes, from fellow attacker Sophie Brett, defenders Ashleigh Gloster and Annie Hillier, experienced midfielder Lucy Lynch and “big-game player” Kirsten Lafferty, the doctor who volunteers as a crew member of Salcome Lifeboat.
Lafferty has done a more elaborate juggling act with her lacrosse ambitions than most, taking a break from the sport to work as a doctor and then missing pre-World Cup training session while serving on the high seas.
“It’s pretty hectic and you get pretty knackered, but it’s worth it because I love playing,” she said.
“Everybody wants a gold medal. Once you get into this level of competition, you’d be foolish to not want that.
“For us, I think, we’ve got some big games, we’re realistic about what our competition’s like, we know it’s going to be ridiculously tough.
“If we can get ourselves into the final, it’s just one game isn’t it? So that’s what we want and hopefully a big result will be that much more inspiring to other people watching the sport.”
Lafferty also played the very important part of trying to bring the team together by hosting their pre-tournament team bonding weekend in Devon.
And what secrets to their success did they find in the south west? A shared passion for Love Island.
“We’re a funny bunch,” admitted Hompe. “Everyone’s been really excited for every episode of Love Island, so I can only imagine how excited they’re going to be for the World Cup.”
Additional reporting by BBC Sport’s Josh Hunt.
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