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Now this, THIS is how you open a Roller Derby season.

After a break to rest and train up the Canberra Roller Derby League kicked off its 2010 season on Saturday night with “2010 – A Skate Odyssey” at the Southern Cross Stadium in Tuggeranong.  I’d been to “Season’s Beatings”, the Christmas bout that culminated the previous season, as reported here, since which I’d been hassling more than a few friends and acquaintances with how much fun we’d had and how they seriously needed to come along.  So as a result we had a few extra friends and relatives along for the show this time, perched in the same spot at the top left of the bleachers where you could see the whole track in one go.  By the time we got there there was a gigantic queue stretching from the doors of the stadium all the way back to the street, but luckily it was a good-natured and fast-moving queue and we shuffled briskly forward to the doors.

The conceit of the “Skate Odyssey” thing was science fiction, and the front of house staff had some commendably geeky accessories: there was a Vulcan woman in full Starfleet uniform, and a woman in the white bobblehat uniform worn by the Pan Am stewardess in the 2001: A Space Odyssey shuttle-flight sequence.  We checked in, admired the costumes, got our wrists stamped and joined the crowd.

When the two teams zoomed into view, each member posing and waving as her name was called to the cheers and stomps of the spectators, it immediately became apparent that the Surly Griffins had spent their holiday break deciding that it was on.  This time they had a team banner to answer that of the Black’n’Blue Belles, their signature beast rampant in green and white, and the knee shorts and singlets uniform of last season had been replaced with some seriously spiffy uniform dresses.

(No pix this time around, sorry, unless I can scavenge some from elsewhere on the net.  I was told by the ticketing website and one of the ushers that there was no photography – I saw other people with cameras but they looked official rather than amateur.  I’ll try and clarify the photography thing in time for the next bout I go to.)

So the Griffins meant business.  The question was going to be, did the Belles mean it more.  And for the first quarter or so it appeared that they did.  The Belles knew they had to keep the Griffins’ Jammers blocked in and stepped on, denying them room for their quality skatework to tell.  The Griffins knew that they had to match the all-in physical game that had won the Belles the title last season.    Those two agendas collided on the track.  Collided hard.  Repeatedly.

The level of ferocity that Season’s Beatings took two-thirds of the match to build up kicked right from this bout’s first lap.  The pace of the game was faster, the blocks harder, the teams more willing to block and brawl to make space for their Jammers, and indeed to do so when the Jammers weren’t even nearby, just to generally clear out the track.  At least one player seemed to crash at every corner and there were a couple of real pile-ups on the straights as the skaters put their speed and formations to use.  The crowd, needless to say, lapped it up.

(A quick rules recap for those of you who didn’t ride the link back to the last Derby post: it’s basically a race, with a pack of blockers from each team circling the track, and a single Jammer from each team circling it faster while the other team’s blockers try to stop them.  The Jammers score points as they lap the pack and overtake opposing skaters.)

D speculated later on that having a full season and the extra pre-season training under their belts was what made the difference, that being more seasoned and confident on their skates made the teams more willing to be combative.  There were indeed some definite advances in technique.  We saw lots more combination plays where teammates would steer or brace each other, or push for a boost in speed.  The skaters seemed more adept at dealing with falls, dropping onto their knees when they were going off balance so they could be quickly up and accelerating again rather than try and stay on their wheels longer and end up falling.  And I think that the players are getting better at blocking as well as more willing – one of my standout memories of the evening was watching the DutchAss of the Belles come around the far left-hand corner, line up two Griffins like a snooker shot and fire them both off the edge of the track with a single deft, hard clip of her shoulder.

It was the DutchAss, if memory serves, who gave the other demonstration of how the game had changed.  Taking a turn as Jammer, instead of using the artful dodging of the speed Jammers like the Belles’ Shaggle Frock or Griffins star Bambi von Smash’er, she simply bulled her way to the front of the pack, shrugging off the opposing blockers, and took off into the lead.  With the players actively going after one another instead of just trying to block each others’ way, the agility Jammers seemed to have a tougher run and the fightier Jammers were able to come into their own.

As for what all this meant for the score, for quite a while it looked like the rolling brawl was favouring the Black’n’Blue Belles for another win.  For the first third of the game they ran away with jam after jam, shutting out the Griffin scorers and quickly racking up a twenty-point lead.  A valiant Griffins counterattack clawed that back down – memory says the teams were about ten points apart at half time – but throughout the first half it looked as though the Belles were going to start the new season in even more authoritative form than they’d finished the last one.

Half-time came in the form of a grey-jumpsuited stiltwalker who shouted at the crowd and juggled, until he was chased away by a young lady in a spangled leotard who cracked a large whip and whirled hula hoops about herself.  I didn’t catch too much of that, having slipped outside to the snack bar to collect refreshments for us.  While I battled with hot chip shortages (memo to Southern Cross Stadium – you need a bigger deep fryer, perhaps?) and the holes in my own memory (I was back in my seat before I thought “hang on, didn’t I pay for a hot dog?”) the second half started, and the Griffins cut loose.

Now, okay, so I missed some details at this point, on account of having gone back out to pick up the aforementioned hot dog and bag some fresh chips while I was at it.  But being down at court level next to the track, even hurrying past it going “ooh, ow, hot” as the chips scorched my hands through the cardboard, gave me a whole different look at the game.  Suddenly instead of a lordly high-level perspective from the high bleachers I was seeing the players full-size and relatively close, really properly seeing how fast they move, how little space they really have to manoeuvre, and what they’re really putting on the line as they go careening around there with their teammates.

So that’s why I can’t give you a play-by-play of the second half, but I can tell you that once again, as we closed in on the end of the match the scores were dead level.  I can also tell you that the crowd’s response to that was to go ballistic, and the players did too, to the point where a short injury break had to be called after Peachy Keen of the Griffins took a big body hit.  The roof practically went up when the Griffins fought their way into the lead, and held it… and held it… just… long… enough…

And then there was no more time on the clock for another jam, and that was that.  The Surly Griffins took the first bout of 2010, and the Black’n’Blue Belles have to win back-to-back if they want to add this season’s trophy to the last one’s.

I’ve heard some rumours of large and enthusiastic numbers of newbies signing up for the CRDL’s “fresh meat” recruitments and I hope they’re true – I’ve said on here before that a big local league with several teams would make for an awesome season.  For the moment, though, we’ll have more than enough on our plates watching the Belles rally to retake the lead from the Griffins during the two May bouts, and seeing the Canberra skaters off to uphold the Territory’s honour at the Great Southern Slam national event in Adelaide on 12 and 13 June.

Can’t wait!