Roller Derby, something new to most sports fans, but a fast-paced and brutal full-contact encounter that you really must check out – unless you fancy getting the pads on yourself!
My exposure to what seemed like American Football on skates began outside the Sir William Stanier leisure centre in Crewe, with an events ambulance parked up by the fire escape!
You don’t see paramedics on Sunday League football pitches, so I second-guessed that the home crowd awaiting the arrival of the all-girl Railtown Loco Rollers were likely to witness a few bumps and scrapes – at the very least.
Inside, I decided to chat with the two-man ambulance crew. It was, they confirmed, a tad rough, with ankle and leg injuries the most common. “You get the odd concussion,” one chap told me, as though it was just an occupational hazard to get knocked out.
In fact, the boxing analogy isn’t too wide of the mark. Like the noble art, the attending medics have the players’ best interests at heart. Any sign of serious injury and they are hauled off the track. No messing. Safety is paramount.
Such diligence wasn’t misplaced, as the first crunching tackle when the whistle sounded confirmed that the ladies out on the circuit were not messing about. A few seconds of ‘play’ saw crashing body slams, tactical shouldering and aggressive marking to stop each other progressing more than a few yards.
So what is it, and what are the rules… well, how long have you got?
In a nutshell, it’s like that old playground favourite, British Bulldog, where you have to run through many others who do anything and everything to stop you, but this time on roller skates. Well, posh roller skates.
I stood high up on the sports hall’s viewing gallery, scanning the mayhem below that involved around fifty women: two squads, a few coaches, and a gaggle of referees and NSOs (non-skating officials) hoping to keep tabs on it all.
The action seemed straightforward initially. Two teams of five on the elliptical track at any one time, for a period of play that can last up to two minutes – called a jam.
But it soon became an organised melee, both sides jostling for position, the aim being to get one player (the jammer) through the pack and around the oval loop and past the opposition players again to start scoring points. The rest act as blockers, apart from the ‘pivot’ who can also become a jammer, although the original jammer must then become a blocker. Still with me?
Now it soon becomes very tactical, with the teams trying to muscle their jammer through the chaos but also preventing the opposition jammer making any progress. Get your jammer around the circuit and scoring points (as the lead jammer), and then you also call the shots. The two-minute jam can be halted, thus preventing your opponents from getting their jammer into a scoring position. Phew – sneaky, eh?
There’s a sin bin when the physical stuff goes too far (really, it can), although the offenses tend to be more like breaches of the rules most of the time. Going off track, hitting incorrectly – like using an elbow, etc. There’s a requirement to keep the pack within a certain range, and quick hand-overs to fresh team members when each jam concludes.
It’s pretty full-on. The girls are decent skaters, of all shapes and sizes, and with some colourful names emblazoned on their backs. I soon surmised that “Fast Lane” and “V-Tess” were usually the nippy, cunning jammers, while “Thudd”, “Sonic Boom”, “Slammy” and “Kamikaze” possessed other skills more appropriate to the art of stopping the enemy in its tracks.
There were two 30-minute periods of play where the teams crammed in as many jams as possible. Scoring was free and easy, and as potentially knock-out challenges were delivered, skaters upended and shuddering blocks perfected, the temperature slowly rose. And this was a Scrim – otherwise known as a friendly!
In fact, I was told that the game passed off without too many incidents compared to some other encounters. Nothing was deemed dangerous, few skaters were pulled up for trying to gain an unfair advantage, and the officials didn’t have to stop the game.
Thankfully, there was only one injury of note, that saw a Railtown lass floored and nursing a sore hip. She landed on a skate – OUCH!
One of the medics made me smile, as he was on his feet in a flash racing to the scene just as the vultures did in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks film. Like them, the ever-hopeful guy with a stretcher was left disappointed when the potential victim hauled herself up and soldiered on with an impressive bruise – known in the trade, apparently, as a Derby Kiss!
The action was full-on and relentless, bonkers at times, and it was hard to keep track of the score as players swapped over every few minutes. The referees and NSOs deserve medals.
But despite the seemingly wanton [mild] violence, what struck me was the feeling of camaraderie – not just within the teams, but across the vast hall as a whole. There were barbed comments, the occasional glare, but when it all ended there were hugs, kisses and congratulations all round.
At the end players were awarded best jammer, best pivot and most valuable player and, drum roll… the Crewe girls grabbed the headlines with a fabulous but slim winning margin: 136-133.
Well done them. I think I need a stiff drink to get over it all…