I was half wondering if we were going to get storms on Saturday.  We’ve had the odd bursts of thunder over the last couple of weeks and Saturday was close and sticky, with big cloud stacks manoeuvring over the valleys and putting the hills into shadow.  The air had that sweaty, greasy quality that makes you long for a good storm to flush it all out, but all the relief we got was some rain in the afternoon.

Deprived of thunder from on high, the Canberra Roller Derby League provided their own.

Tonight was the grand finale double-header bout of the second 2010 season, the first season to feature the League’s expanded four-team lineup.  Not only were the teams expanded but they were reshuffled, a generous mix and stir to the rosters ensuring that each new team had a balance of seasoned skaters and newbies.  Old antagonists the Surly Griffins and the Black’n’Blue Belles now have the Brindabelters and the Red-Bellied Blackhearts to contend with, and tonight would determine the final placements for the end of the season.  The two original teams were duking it out for the top trophy, while the two new ones were fighting a pared-down match beforehand to try and dodge the wooden spoon.

We got there late.  My fault completely for leaving the tickets parked in a PC halfway across town instead of in my Hotmail, but never mind that now.  We piled into the last bit of queue, got our forearms stamped and by the time we were in and on the bleachers the skaters were already under way.

The Belters and the Blackhearts get things moving.

The bout was shorter than usual, and slower: the skaters were going for technique and manoeuvre, not aggression.  (We later found out that some of them were actually doubling up on matches to ensure both teams had the numbers, which meant that a few of them must have been keeping in mind that there was a second, full-length bout to come.)  The main thing that stood out for me was another bout of amazing jamming by established CRDL star, and Red-Bellied Blackheart captain Bambi von Smash’er, floating through the ‘belter packs with the same weird space-bending skill she showed when she wore the Surly Griffins’ green and white.  I’ve noticed that the good jammers all seem to have their own styles, and Bambi’s is an invisible one, at least to me: you never seem to see her duck and weave, or change direction, or shove or brawl for position.  She just comes zooming up behind the enemy pack, and you wonder how the hell she’s going to get past them… and a few moments later, as she accelerates away for another lap, you wonder how the hell she just did.  The Blackhearts had a pretty firm grip on this bout, and ended up handing the wooden spoon to the Brindabelters with a score of 67 to 62.

After the teams had done their victory laps and high fives…

…the show took a short interval so we could prepare ourselves for the main event (and I think someone at the venue has been listening to the griping because there were more people on duty at the food counter and divided lines for hot and cold food, which moved things on a lot better).  This one was for the big title, a bout between two teams who, membership changes aside, had a history with each other.  The Black’n’Blue Belles came on first, doing exuberant knee-slides forward at the crowd when their names were called, followed by the Surly Griffins with their big green namesake, a team mascot which was composed of, well, the actual team.

I'll try and get closer for the pic next time.

The crowd was hyped and noisy for this one, and the skaters were pumped: the bout rocked right from the whistle for the first jam.  It was interesting to see that the team styles I’d noticed in my first report seemed to be asserting themselves again.  The Griffins generally seemed to have better tactics and teamwork, while the Belles relied on rough-and-tumble and star turns by their best players.  A Griffins tactic that seemed to work particularly well for them was to string out the Belle pack, which relied on the refs enforcing a rule that I haven’t really seen in action before: each team’s pack has to stay formed up on that team’s Pivot, the skater with the bar on her helmet.  When the pack gets too strung out they get called on it and have to form up again, but since skaters are only ever allowed to go anticlockwise (we noticed the refs dinging someone that night for clockwise skating) they have to form up by the rear skaters catching up to the front ones.

Griffins and Belles jostle for position.

Playing on this, the Griffins managed to immobilise the Belles’ pack by letting them get strung out and then boxing in the rearmost Belle.  Since the Belles were under refs’ orders to form up, their lead skaters couldn’t move forward and had to wait for their hindmost member.  More than once the Griffins used this to bring both teams pretty much to a halt on the track – a nifty move if your Jammer has a good turn of speed, and even better if the opposing Jammer is in the sin bin.

(If I’ve misunderstood this rule and/or the tactic then please correct me, I’m deducing this from watching the referees’ hand signals and from what I could hear of the calls.)

Oi ref!

And did I say “if your Jammer has a good turn of speed”?  I believe I did, and that’s what the Griffins’ Jammers had in spades.  The Jammer duels were the absolute highlight of the bout and both teams’ stars had the crowd roaring time after time.

I’ve already talked about how each Jammer seems to have their own distinctive style.  Bambi has that weird Zen ghost thing going on.  Shaggle Frock is tall and willowy and sways into her turns like a reed in the breeze, looking so languid that you forget how fast she’s going or how hard the other team is trying to stop her.  Kitten Caboodle has the distinctive Belles attitude: to the audience’s delight, several times she simply ignored the tactical niceties like dodging and weaving and just shoved her way through the opposing pack before they realised what was going on.
But the two star Jammers of the night were unquestionably the Belles’ Short Stop and the Griffins’ Cassatrophic (a former Belle who switched teams in the redraft), two skaters with amazing ability and, once again, wildly contrasting styles.  Short Stop is all technique, utterly at home on her skates and able to reverse direction at speed with a sweet and natural control that none of the Griffins could match.  Watching her calmly weave through the pack on the straights was like watching someone on foot hurrying through a stationary crowd, dancing back and forth through the gaps while the others simply watched her go past.  Cassatrophic, on the other hand, is all about the brute power.  She’s almost as short as Bambi and looks even smaller on the track: on the straights she puts her head down like she’s about to crash-tackle someone, and as she pours on the speed her skates go at the track like a bull pawing the ground before it charges.  I kept expecting to see the spectators on the Suicide Line knocked flat by her slipstream.

Short Stop in action

It was the perfect complement to the Griffins’ pack-blocking tactic, since she could circle the track so damn fast that with the pack at a standstill she could hoover up the points.  Cassatrophic pretty much owned any jam she came out for, sometimes racking up fifteen-nil scores and leaving the Belles standing.

Bambi von Smash'er works the crowd at halftime.

It was awesome, but it wasn’t enough.  The Belles had taken the bout firmly by the throat in the early jams and by the time the Griffins’ scoring really got into high gear they were trying to close a gap that had opened up to forty points or more.  I think the Belles had been shocked out of some of their commanding form by a bad injury, with teammate Smokin’ Haze stretchered out during the first half, apparently with a broken ankle …

…but their mission to hold off the Griffins’ late rush succeeded, keeping the last scrap of their lead just out of clutching green and white claws.  Final score: Black’n’Blue Belles 128, Surly Griffins 124, and the Belles become the 2010 season champions!

What a great show.  I’m really looking forward to seeing these teams mesh and grow next year: the Griffins still seem to be the standout team for skating skills and tactical work and it’ll be interesting to see how the other teams answer that.  I did notice there was less of the combined plays that were so striking (literally) in the last of the two-team League bouts, but I’m sure they’ll all be working on some excellent new manoeuvres between now and next season.

The one rather off note for the night (if you’re not in the mood for my nitpick then skip this paragraph) was the commentary.  I don’t know that the commentary was actually bad, but… well, that’s the thing, I don’t know if the commentary was bad.  Or good, or what it was about, or what they had to say.  Part of it was the blurring of sound you tend to get when you’re using a big PA system in a big space, but the commentators were using chatty, conversational voices which meant that although they were talking continuously they mostly just blurred into white noise with only the occasional word coming out clear.  (Admittedly my hearing struggles when there’s a lot of background noise, but it wasn’t just me, nobody else I asked could make out the words either.)  For future bouts I’m hoping they’ll slow down and add emphasis to their words, perform the commentary rather than just saying it.  Derby is all about the drama, after all.

Anyway, nitpick over.  If the reports I’m hearing are correct, of the trainee (“Fresh Meat”) skaters outnumbering the current active ones by three to one, then the 2011 season is going to be amazing, but for now the next challenge will be dishing out a righteous stomping to the representative Sydney team in December:

Can’t wait.

(PS: I’ve been remiss, I know, I never did put up a report of the last bout I went to earlier this year.  I’m a terrible person.  To make up for it, see what you think of this article in John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” series, a little piece by American author and Derby skater Pamela Ribon about her novel Going In Circles and the role Roller Derby plays for her both in her writing and out of it.)