And so last weekend it came to pass that with a heart full of anticipation, a mouth full of coconut-marshmallow Easter bunny and ears full of injunctions from my girlfriend to keep my hands off “those fishnet-wearing girls”, I found myself back at the Southern Cross Stadium for the start of the Canberra Roller Derby League’s 2011 bout season. The League’s two founding teams, the Black’n’Blue Belles and the Surly Griffins, were squaring off once again, and the match was both a great piece of Derby in its own right and a promise of a great season coming up.
The big question for this bout was how the locals’ tactics would change after the CRDL’s all-star team were recently trodden down by their Victorian counterparts. My fuller account of that is here (with some followup discussion with one of the referee crew in the comments), but the nutshell version is that the Victorians controlled the game from the start with tight teamwork and by using trapping and formation work to slow the pack right down, something the locals didn’t have an answer to. My comment at the time was that whichever of the CRDL team could master those tactics the quickest would have the edge in the local competition, and I think that on Saturday night the Surly Griffins proved that right.
Right from the first jam you could tell there’d been a sea change. My memory of last seasons’ starting positions was that the teams tended to mix themselves up as they formed the pack and waited for the whistle, but this time around the Griffins separated themselves and took the back position, in one early jam even reversing after the whistle so they’d be behind the Belles. The effect was to have the pack be very slow off the starting line (barely moving by the time the whistle to start the Jammers went, in fact) so that the Griffin Jammer could break through almost straight away to take lead Jammer and start scoring. It was a gutsy tactic, placing a lot of faith in the Jammer and with any miscalculation meaning a fatal loss of initiative to the Belles, but it was bringing results. The first few jams saw the Griffins’ Jammers well away right from the whistle, and their score was following suit.
The Belles were also working their pack tactics, but I don’t think they managed it as adroitly. Their tactic seemed to be to keep tight formation toward the rear of the pack to try and control its speed that way, and to make sure that a line of Belles was the first thing a Griffin Jammer saw as she came up behind them. (I have no special inside information into the teams’ playbooks, I should add, this is all based on what it looked like they were trying to achieve on the track.) That took longer to work out, though, because the tactic itself took a while to work properly and it backfired on them more often. There were a couple of awesome jams where it fell into place and the Griffins ended up strung out on the track ahead of them, caught flatfooted (flatskated? flatwheeled?) and out of team coherency, and those were the jams where the Belles did their best work making up the score gap. But more often they just got stuck behind the action, unable to speed up enough to mix it up with the Griffins’ blockers so that time and again their Jammers had to take the entire Griffin pack on on her own. I remember thinking “where the hell’s her backup” at least twice during the first half as I watched some hapless Belle get bounced back and forth like a pinball.
The Belles’ plan B, when they couldn’t hold the formation, was the one-on-one rough-and-tumble that’s served them so well in the past, but even that wasn’t the edge that it used to be. The Griffins’ teamwork was simply better, good enough to keep them contained. On the other hand the Belles’ brawlers made for some of the best sights of the evening. Jammers King Cam and freshmeat recruit Valhannah were fantastic to watch, getting roars of delighted laughter out of the audience (or at least my row) every time they came up onto the Griffins’ pack and simply punched through it, often barely slowing down. (“Through the pack like a rusty knife through a hobo!” was the commentator’s take, slightly wince-inducing but certainly evocative.) Their colleague Short Stop brought the finesse, once again dodging her way through opposing packs with Matrix-like grace (and pulling one amazing move where she seemed to swerve almost at ninety degrees, while moving at full speed in the middle of a Griffins’ pack, without slowing down – how she managed that without face-planting on the track or wrenching her knees and ankles to pieces I cannot tell you).
But if we’re going to talk Jammers, we have to talk Cassatrophic. The Griffins’ tactics and packwork were one half of the night’s story, and Cass was the other half. I’ve talked about her skating before: rather than making it look effortless the way some of the star skaters do, she leaves you in no doubt at all about the power and aggression that’s sending her blasting around the track, and the Belles’ pack seemed helpless to hold her once she started rolling. (I clearly remember one jam where the Belle Jammer got lead Jammer status and then called it off as soon as Cass came up behind her.) For the whole bout she was getting cheers as soon as she took the track, and deserving every one of them. I predict that this season’s Surly Griffins/Red-Bellied Blackhearts match, pitting her against Bambi von Smash’er, will sell out the fastest of any bout this year.
When they were on form the Belles could be masterful, and several jams in the second half went all their way. Particularly when the Griffins got sin-binned en masse, which happened a few times*. But ultimately those bursts of brilliance weren’t enough. The Griffins outskated them too consistently, and that lead was still there when the bout finished: Surly Griffins 150 to the Black’n’Blue Belles’ 132.
It was a great night, with a big and enthusiastic crowd and lively commentary. The 2011 season is under way in fine form, with new skaters, the teams learning new tricks and tactics with every match, and season passes already sold out. Speaking of which, there’s a certain ticketing site I have to go visit if I’m going to get the chance to cheer for the Red-Bellied Blackhearts against the nefarious Brindabelters at the end of the month, so if you’ll excuse me…**
*I’m not sure whether they just got overconfident, or if the Belles were getting better at deliberately drawing out the fouls, which I understand is an accepted Derby tactic.
**Ack! They don’t go on sale for another week and a half. Nobody better gazump me.