I tried to be good and write the latest CRDL bout up as soon as I got home on Saturday night, but I couldn’t work out where to start with one of the fastest, most dynamic, closest and most controversial matches I’ve seen in a while. Also, I couldn’t find the camera cord. So, thank you for waiting.
This was the second bout of the 2011 CRDL season and featured the League’s two second-founding teams, the Brindabelters and the Red-Bellied Blackhearts. The original teams had squared off in the first bout a few weeks ago, and the Surly Griffins took the first win of the season with a victory over the Black’n’Blue Belles. (Referring to the “new” and “old” teams is technically accurate – the pairs of teams were founded over a year apart – but the League avoided an unfair skill gap by mixing up the teams so that each had an equal mix of seasoned skaters and recruits, the latter rejoicing in the Derby nickname of “fresh meat”.) The last time the Blackhearts and Belters clashed it was for the season’s wooden spoon in last year’s double-header grand final, but since then there’s been a whole lot of training (the League has its own training space now) and an all-stars match against Victoria to hone the skills, as well as even more fresh meat skaters joining the ranks. And it all worked. This was one epic Derby night.
The buzz was obvious from the start, with a long queue out from the entrance half an hour before bout time and the stands filling up quickly. The commentary team was a pair of skaters from that night’s non-competing teams: The Cleaver from the Black’n’Blue Belles and Doctor Hell from the Surly Griffins. They need this pair back. They gave the best commentary I’ve heard at a bout yet, witty and knowledgeable, knowing when to describe or explain what was going on on the track, when to let the action speak for itself, and when to cheerlead and get the crowd fired up. They and the DJ certainly had the crowd fired up for the teams’ arrival, the skaters taking to the track to a roar from the bleachers.
The Blackhearts are hitting the “pirate” part of the name more than the “snake” part (I’ll admit it’s more fun to get the crowd to yell YARR! than to get them to hiss) and when they took the track they brought out their mighty chest… er, their booty, er… look, just think of a term that doesn’t come out sounding like a punchline from a Carry On film and fill it in here, OK?
They towed this thing around for a bit beforehand but I don’t think we ever found out what was in it.
(Edit: I stand corrected in the comments, it contained the Blackheart benchies and a supply of chocolate coins. No, I don’t know how I missed it either.)
The First Half
When the bout began the teams exploded off the starting lines. Last bout the Griffins and Belles were keeping their cool when the whistle went and going for slower formation play, but this time around the pedal went to the metal straight away. The first jam was scoreless but certainly not uneventful – the teams were exchanging big hits that sent one another flying or sprawling and got loud “ooh”-ing from the crowd, none more so than when one of the refs had to leap over a skater who’d been knocked off the track to crash in front of him. (Which I, ahem, missed and then got told about. I need to find a good voice recorder, having my nose in my notebook for moments like this sucks.)
It wasn’t just the pack that was brawling it out. One of my favourite things about this match was the spectacular series of Jammer duels, partly because they tended to happen clear of the pack, and partly because of the skill and agility of the Jammers themselves. Now, when a Blocker gets too separated from the pack, she’s actually not allowed to engage opposing skaters and can’t do anything except get herself back into pack distance as soon as she can. There’s no such restriction on the Jammers, though, who can engage anywhere on the track and whose most viable targets, of course, will be each other. I’ve never seen as much Jammer-jousting as I did in this bout, and it added a fantastic extra layer of action and tactics.
Shaggle Frock of the Brindabelters gets my vote for star player of the evening – as well as being a pointscoring machine she was the most conspicuous threat to the Blackheart Jammers when she decided to be. I’ve commented on her technique before, that whole “effortless effort” thing – she always looks graceful and languid, but has a fearsome turn of speed and is always exactly where she needs to be on the track. That serves her well when she decides to duel rather than score, with several jams where she simply shut her opposite number down, sometimes with hits but more often by flitting in front of them and then languidly slowing down and using superior skating to make herself impossible to overtake.
(Getting stuck directly behind an opponent seems to be a really nasty position in Derby. From what I saw on Saturday, if you’re working at building up the speed to get past them you’re sacrificing manoeuvrability, if you’re trying to swerve around them then you still need a burst of speed to overtake, and I can’t think of any legal block that a skater can use on someone in front of her to knock them out of the way. There’s a reason that most of the position shifts seem to happen on corners.)
The Frock also defined the first half of this bout with an epic scoring run in what my notes tell me would have been about the tenth jam. With her teammates neatly corralling the Blackhearts, she grabbed Lead Jammer status and whipped around the track for scoring pass after scoring pass, burying the Blackheart’s modest early lead to put the Belters ahead 33-14. The Blackhearts did not like that, not one bit, and made their displeasure known in a brawl-tastic series of jams that saw the Belters fight so hard to hold on to their lead that they kept ending up in the sin bin.
The Blackhearts used what I think of as the “quick-bite” strategy: grab the Lead Jammer spot, then end the jam as soon as you have a couple of points and before the other Jammer can catch up to the pack at all. Instead of a series of full-length jams with the potential for either team to score high, this creates a quick series of much shorter jams in which one team scores modestly and the other not at all. I’m also theorising that it capitalises on an opposition with lots of sin-binned skaters: stints in the bin seem to be measured in actual minutes of play, so if you have lots of short jams during those suspensions you’re causing more jams to start while the opposing team is short on numbers, which in turn makes it easier for your own full-strength team to gram the aforementioned Lead Jammer. Am I understanding this right? Let me know in the comments.
(The rules are that while there’s a changeover of skaters at the end of every jam, if someone’s in the sin bin you can’t bring someone off the bench to replace them: part of the way the binning penalises the team is that they have to skate with reduced numbers until it expires.)
The Blackhearts were starting to chip away at the lead, but they were having to sweat for every point they knocked off it. By the last jam of the first half, a slow-pack jam and another cool Jammer joust between Shaggle Frock and Speedin’ Seagal, they were still in the lead 57-40.
I didn’t win anything in the raffle. Bah! There was an entertainment act, but I have no idea what it was. The people in front of me spent the whole interval standing up in the perfect formation to block that whole part of the arena from view. Never mind. Onward.
The Second Half
The Belters began the second half in pretty commanding form, with some great moves from Freudian Slit (one of their new skaters and a tough, audacious Jammer who wiped out the Blackheart pack) and more deft Jammer assassination from Shaggle Frock. This was the start of the Blackheart fightback, though, and before the half was too old they had narrowed the lead to a single point. My handwriting gets a little shaky at this point but I believe it was crowd favourite and Blackheart Vice-Captain Bambi von Smash’er who pulled them into the lead, bringing the scores to 69-65 for her team. The Belters’ attempt to overthrow that lead saw another rash of sin-binnings that left only two Belters in the pack – but those two Belters were Shaggle Frock and fellow veteran the DutchAss, who put on an awesome display of skill and defiance to keep the whole Blackheart pack at a standstill.
By now such a full-on bout was starting to tell, and a number of skaters’ fatigue was becoming apparent. As the Belter numbers filled up again we had a great Jammer showdown between Freudian Slit and Bambi von Smash’er, Shaggle Frock tormenting opposing Jammers (even the commentators were agreeing that she was playing with them) and skaters bouncing in and out of the sin bin right down to the final jam. The Belters went into that five points behind, 97-92 with only a minute until full time, and Shaggle Frock rose up righteous and roared in six points to the Blackhearts’ one in front of a crowd going insane.
That’s right, 98-98. A tie. The first in CRDL history, and apparently not something anyone had expected. There was a brief lull as the officials conferred, before they announced a single overtime jam to break the tie. This was a “Golden Jam”, in which points could be scored right from the first pass – no Lead Jammer, no need to break through and lap the pack before the points came in. Shaggle Frock lined up for the Belters, FaunaCat for the Blackhearts, and the energy on the track had to be seen to be believed. When the final whistle went at least one skater simply dropped off her skates where she was. The teams had given it everything they had. Time to find out what they’d got for it.
We watched the Blackheart scores go up first, climbing from 98 up to 114. Then the Belters, climbing up, reaching 114, and going up… and up… The Belters fans went nuts and the team were ecstatic, and the numbers kept going up…
I like to think I clicked to it early, because I remember thinking “the Jammers weren’t that far apart, can a margin this big be right?” And a moment later the commentators were asking us to hold on for a moment, because there was a correction to be made. From what I found out later there were two points from before the overtime whose status was uncertain, and somewhere along the scoring chain the points from the Golden Jam itself had been miscounted. The Belters’ score was readjusted: 110. Now it was the Blackhearts’ turn for jubilation. The crowd cheered and the Belters applauded, but I heard some boos from around me too. After a finish that intense that was a cruel little coda.
And I do mean “intense”. This may be the best Derby bout I’ve seen yet. Both teams were well matched in skill, teamwork, tactics, and sheer relentlessness. The veteran players are a still a joy to watch. I’ve singled out Shaggle Frock and the Dutchass but the Blackhearts’ Roulette Rouge and Bambi von Smash’er brought the awesome as well, the latter spending quite a few jams in a blocker role and showing she’s picked up a taste for clobbering. While the experience gap does sometimes show in unforced errors – a couple of times I saw new skaters from both teams get a bit wobbly, and in one case fall, while they were well clear of any opponents – the new skaters are tearing it up, with Freudian Slit taking the fight right to Bambi and some very cool performances from Terror Bonesaparte. (I know I’m leaving out some of the deserving here, sorry, sometimes I didn’t have time to note a name and sometimes I couldn’t properly make out a number.)
This is the first CRDL bout to be televised*, and they couldn’t have picked a better match. Thank you Red-Bellied Black Hearts, thank you Brindabelters for an amazing evening at the Derby. The next bout is on May 28, with the Brindabelters firing up again to take on the Surly Griffins. See you there.
*From the CRDL Facebook page: Catch the edited broadcast Nationally on Channelvision Foxtel/Austar (Channel 183) Sunday 8th May at 7.30pm & Weds 11th May @ 9pm or on Channelvision TransTV (Channel 501) four times per day for a week from Friday 6th May.
And for a set of photos from the night that are better than mine (the camera got stuck on some weird setting for the first half of the night) check out this online gallery of the night from Michael Whitehead.