Clash of the Titans - VRDL v QLD Sept 1 2012

A couple of years ago, I went to see a Swedish metal act called Meshuggah. One image I still carry with me in my head from that night, is of the way those musicians stalked the stage as though they were not mere humans, but giants; masters of their craft, something larger than life.

Last night replayed that experience, because I went to see a double-header at the Melbourne Showgrounds: the VRDL Queen Bees vs Northern Brisbane Rollers, followed by the infamous 'grudge' re-match from TGSS: the VRDL All-Stars vs Sun State Roller Girls. If you ever want to see the best of the best on quads in this country, you either made the right decision, or you missed out.

There really is something different about seeing roller derby battled out between the very best leagues of Australia. It is both exciting and imposing to live in such an era where this sport is growing so rapidly and still finding its feet, yet true athletic excellence already exists. I hope you can get a sense of my excitement and awe, were you not at the event yourself, to reflect on the idea that I was treading foot where the wheels of these titans have rolled past. Sorry if this heavy-laden language seems a bit over-the-top, but I really have a lot of respect for these leagues.

I made my way early to the Melbourne Showgrounds, and managed to get a good seat on the suicide line amongst the photographers near the first turn (sitting with derby photographers, as it turned out, promised to be an educational experience - they are largely, for the most part, a bunch of raucous ratbags - and great fun). The music and sound quality was particularly exceptional this evening, and it soon became clear from the growing masses that many more people than we usually see at VRDL's home venue were arriving in droves to see this showdown take place.

VRDL Queen Bees vs NBR

The first game of the night featured the Queen Bees vs NBR. I had huge anticipation for this match, for two reasons: I had been astonished at the strength and skill of NBR after having seen them play at TGSS in Adelaide back in June. This is one fierce league, who, during that tournament, dominated over ADRD, PCR (twice), WIRD, held at bay only by SSRG, ultimately taking number #3 in the country tally.

The other reason was that I'd never seen the VRDL's travel team play before. Though recognising all of the players, as a Melbournian, from the internal teams, I didn't know what to expect when seeing them play together. I knew the match would be tough given NBR's intensity, but wasn't sure how the Queen Bees would compare. In the end, it was a thrilling game that looked challenging for all, and that makes spectators such as myself very happy :) (as did the fact that the Wild Mushrooms food stall was there - everyone knows my weakness for mushrooms by now).

The two teams both undertook their warm ups - noticeably, it seems VRDL have a rigorous series of drills that they run through at this time, which was repeated by the All-Stars later. Then the night officially kicked off with a whistle as the Queen Bee's Miss Chivas and NBR's Lil' Gee Unit launched into the first jam.

Chivas was quickly called for a major high block, delivering an instant power-jam opportunity to Lil' Gee Unit who began to put the first points on the scoreboard. Chivas was released from the bin, pressuring the NBR jammer into trying to call off the jam, but she was not lead jammer due to accumulating a minor penalty. Nonetheless, by the end of the jam she managed to rack up 19 points for the Queensland side with zero points for the Queen Bees.

The next few jams continued to deliver early damage to the Victorians as NBR extended their lead to 37 points over zero until Miss Chivas got one point up, followed by Speedy Wasabi claiming another 6 points while her blockers held NBR at bay for only two more points at 39.

It was clear that NBR were off to a strong start. Although the likes of 6ft Hussy and Bebop quickly upped their game as blockers for the Bees, Chivas, Nasty Beasty and Speedy Wasabi could only raise the score to 14 before a big powerjam opportunity arose for NBR's Brandee Snapz, who increased the gap to 51 points vs 14. Around this point, Speedy Wasabi achieved lead jam but appeared to intentionally take a track cut: a big mistake, as the refs put her in the bin for it. This was not a good time to take risks when down by so many points at such an early stage. The gap continued to bridge at 14 to 70, before the Queen Bees decided to take a time-out to reset and re-evaluate their approach against such a formidable opponent.

With between 8 and 6 minutes remaining in the first half, Nasty Beasty fought NBR's Shanks A Lot for lead jam and, despite a big hit landing on her, took advantage of a powerjam situation as Shanks A Lot hit the penalty box. The score began to level a little bit, at 72 to the Queen Bee's 37.

The rest of the first half continued in such a fashion: the VRDL site incrementally snatched a few points here and there, while their defensive side nutted out new strategies to neutralise the NBR jamming powerhouse that was Brandee Snapz, Lil Gee Unit and Christy Demons. Despite a slow start by the Queen Bees, the half-time whistle blew with 42 points on their side, while the NBRs stood strong at 87.

The second half opened in a rather unusual way for modern derby: there were three pivot line starts in a row, much to the apparent chagrin of the photographer on my left, who evidently preferred scrum starts from an artist's perspective! After Miss Chivas got lead jam but took a big hit along with calling the jam off too late to prevent points for the Queenslanders, a subsequent jam saw Beth Adder, number #20 for the NBR side, perform a nice juke around Gilli Pepper for more points. With two Victorians in the bin, the stronghold was weakened and the score soon sat at 50 to 101.

Defensive strategy and penalties seemed to increase in the second half on both sides: Miss Chivas was seen to be recycled into the pack by Janosaurus Wrecks and Christy Demons, Gilli Pepper later scored 4 points but then was pushed out of bounds and forced to call a jam, followed by the same occurring to Nasty Beasty. On the other hand, a penalty landed Lil' Gee Unit in the bin and saw Beasty return to the track only to be sent back off for a forearm major. Gee Unit was thus sent back on immediately, but was unable to break the VRDL wall - instead opting to call it rather than waste any more time for little gain.

The score stood at 62 to 122 in NBR's favour before the Queen Bees called their second timeout. Several jams then ensued: Miss Chivas, Speedy and Gilli Pepper fighting hard but only incrementing the Victorian score to 70. NBR didn't do much better, reaching 130 points with under 9 minutes remaining.

After some good defence by Alex in Chains - and after she took out a referee - the Victorians put this versatile Toxics Dolls of Hazzard player into jammer position for the first time in the night. She got lead jammer over Lil' Gee-Unit, but the score only inched forward on both sides at 70 - 143.

The Queen Bees continued to suffer damage due to penalties: Miss Chivas hit the bin during a jam against Brandee Shanks. With one minute remaining, Betty Fight fought hard to keep Shanks a Lot at bay and wind down the clock. Chivas took another major, and the match wound up with a final score of 75 to 157, for NBR.

In a way - despite being a Victorian, I really enjoyed this match. NBR lived up to my expectations and affirmed my memory of their strength as a team. Beth Adder and Lil Gee-Unit were particularly impressive jammers for the Queensland side, but more relevant was the way their entire team worked together to find the weaknesses in the Victorian's walls for those jammers to capitalise. I think the Queen Bees, who have had a few good wins of late against interstate teams, will be able to evaluate the game with perspective and take a lot of good lessons from it - potentially emerging as a stronger opponent against the northerners at a later date.

A final scribble in my notes from this game was something I just had to mention: it was utterly fantastic to see both teams skate into the centre of the track post-game and thank/hug each and every referee and NSO for their efforts. Let me take the moment to do the same and thank every ref, official, event managers and volunteers, and first-aid officers for their work that we often appreciate only for the worst of reasons, but who spend the majority of their time invisibly pulling the strings that make these evenings such a fantastic experience for all of us. You do not go unrecognised.

Well, now. The mid-bout entertainment was underway with the Real Hot Bitches performing an.. entertaining series of dances for the crowd. I'll be so bold as to declare that the guy in the leotard won many hearts - but I can't be certain, as I was pretty focused on my mushroom foldover around this time and avoiding taking notes. I think you had to just be here for this part.. 'nuff said? To quote the lady behind me who copped an eyeful more than she bargained for: 'steady on..'

VRDL All-Stars vs SSRG

Alrighty! The match that many people came for: VRDL All-stars vs SSRG. I don't need to iterate much over the rivalry between these two leagues: history has etched this story in time for anyone who's spent a little while in the derby world: even as little as I have. SSRG were here, in most spectator eyes, to fight for a re-match after the upset they suffered for the second Great Southern Slam tournament in which VRDL reigned supreme. I believe it was the fifth time SSRG had gone up against the Victorians. Many undoubtably hoped for a shock victory for the Queenslanders. But was it to be?

The second bout erupted with a bit of a fizzer: jam line confusion saw neither team take a knee for what would otherwise be a scrum start, and saw a no-derby jam I've not witnessed since the last time SSRG played against VRDL at TGSS. The second jam saw the same line-up: crowd favourite Mad Mel Arena vs SSRG's Sweet Enemy, and things began this time as expected. Mel took the first lead jam of the match and put two points up on the board before calling it off. G-Banger took over in the third jam against Ladykiller, who was pinned inside the wall by Kitty Decapitate (playing what is probably her final game for VRDL). G-Banger, despite taking a fall and being recycled, opened up a nice strong lead at 15 points to zero, capitalised even further by Swish Cariboom, who delivered a phenomenal 20-point jam against Chop Chop to take the VRDL lead to 35 - 0.

SSRG countered this early offensive by solidifying their wall against Rocky Rogue. This paid off, as Chop Chop, who suffered a penalty in the previous jam, re-entered the track and forced Rocky to call it.

Polly Crackers managed to out-manouevre Kitty Decapitate, finally putting points on the board for SSRG at 44 to 4. SSRG's Muzzerati obtained lead jammer in the subsequent jam, but G-Banger was already ahead of her with a forearm minor penalty. This VRDL advantage left no alternative but for Muzzerati to call it off after G-Banger took another 5 points.

Several jams followed with the energetic Victorians continuing to strengthen their lead - including another 20 points slipped through like butter between bread by Skate Bush while Cookie Cutter was held at bay by the Flying Nun-Chucker and Kitty. Suddenly, however, the penalty demon hit the All-Stars: Mad Mel Arena joining Berzerker in the bin, and at one point with all seats so full that BB Bombshell, sent for a major, had to return to the jam to sit her penalty later. Mel rejoined a jam against Polly Crackers, but due to a track cut was swiftly sent back off again. Was this relentless force beginning to come apart at the seams with trips to the bin?

With 9 minutes remaining, the VRDL penalties spoke for themselves on the scoreboard. The points now stood at 76 to 44 in VRDL's favour after Sweet Enemy for the SSRG broke a wall of three blockers for more points. The massive lead was shrinking faster than the seconds were in the first half. The pace of the packs seemed to increase as a result, and the crowd was treated to some seriously fast derby, mostly set by the Queensland team to try and hold that VRDL lead in check. Swish had to fight hard to score only another 3 points. Mad Mel Arena, assisted by a fantastic whip by Calamity Maim, brought the lead back at 91 - 49, but it was clear the VRDL were continuing to suffer with BB Bombshell and Berzerker - two of the blue-and-white champion team's most valuable blockers - back in the bin, soon followed by Nun-Chucker leaving only Rocky Rogue on the track to try and limit the havoc being wreaked by Chop Chop.

The half-time whistle blew at 91-53 for VRDL. The second opened with Cookie Cutter chasing down lead jammer Swish Cariboom, forcing Swish to call it off after 4 - then SSRG scoring another 4 for themselves on the following jam.

Chop Chop had a big role in the second half, facing off regularly against Skate Bush. The game appeared to clean up a bit with less penalties on either side, and Sweet Enemy later snuck through the fearsome threesome BB, Berzerker and Maim, but the Victorians were able to edge just that little bit further in front during the first seven jams or so, at 112-59. Once again, however, the scales tipped: Mad Mel Arena visited the bin, while Cookie Cutter slid another 10 points through for the ladies in gold and black.

Pack pace was pumping as though in time with the pulse of the audience: cheering only getting louder when Muzzerati slid out of bounds in between the first and second turn, straight into what was apparently a stockpile of open, half-drunk beers. The resulting mess drew attention befitting that of a serious injury (perhaps it was, in a way) - an official timeout was called so that a referee could assist mopping up the damage to eliminate any risk to players. The photographers sitting alongside me lamented morosely that they failed to capture the moment. Oh, woe for them, and hooray for writers who get to embellish later on and claim artistic merit!

Back to the game. G-Banger, who was having one fantastic and very clean match, took lead jammer and a few points over Chop Chop. Muzzerati, on the other hand, did the same to Skate Bush, but was then shut down by the imposing BB Bombshell. I could re-iterate over the jams like this to no end: although we weren't treated to any lead changing nail-biters, it felt like every jam was a game of tug of war - not just in terms of jammers juking their way through to scoring passes, but more importantly in the way the blockers from both sides were able to disintegrate solid walls at just the right opportunity - all at largely breakneck speed around the track. The only factors halting that momentum were the official timeouts followed by immediate team time-outs.

SSRG's Slawta Dawta delivered one massive smackdown to Smashin' Pop, allowing Polly Crackers through to take the score to 140-77. Likewise, Sculley and Rola Cherry Cola mitigated Skate Bush's advance. but only for a short time - the lead increased to 154-77 with 9 minute remaining - before Cookie Cutter took a fall after the third turn - bringing the game to a halt as she evidently landed on her back badly. First Aid swiftly entered the track while everyone took a knee. The superstar jammer was stretchered off and presumably to hospital for a proper examination - at the time of writing, I just heard from SSRG that she is recovering well.

This was, understandably, a major upset both personally and strategically for the Sun State team, and they took the time to re-assess their approach in this most undesired of circumstances.

The match picked up, once again with G-Banger and Swish dominating the lead jammer status in their respective jams. At one point, an SSRG blocker skidded into the suicide line in front of me with an unfastened snout hanging from her skate. While she wrestled to rip it off, I unfortunately could not provide her with a knife as she requested - a credit, if anything, to the professionalism of the on-site security team who would probably not have let me inside were I to carry one! Nonetheless, during this time, her teammate Polly Crackers took lead jammer over Mad Mel Arena, who was left with little choice but to call it off, albeit after Polly snatched two points away.

The crowd was bristling with nerves. 4 minutes remained on the clock with a score of 161 to 79. Somehow, despite the way VRDL were dominating, this did not feel like a walk-in-the-park win, and I think that's testament to the energy and athleticism of the SSRG team: they were lacking the advantage, but the message was clear: VRDL understood it would take diligence to maintain a safe lead. A jam ensued that saw all but one SSRG player hit the bin, yet once the SSRG jammer returned to the track, her defensive approach ensured G-Banger was unable to gain any more points!

The score was taken to 185 for VRDL by Swish Cariboom, while SSRG still struggled to increase their score as the minutes dwindled. Finally, Mad Mel Arena took to the track in what was to become a fairy-tale end jam. Mel is one of those jammers who is very receptive to the energy of the crowd. Well, I can tell you that the crowd erupted like a volcano in those final laps, and she danced her way through a series of grand slams at breakneck pace, ultimately bringing her team to a milestone solid 200 points to SSRG's 79 - a jam wherein each stride was a defiant declaration of this champion league's confidence and intention to remain number one.

Thanks as always to everyone who made this event happen - especially to the visiting Queenslanders and the friendly crowd they brought along! I think we're all looking forward to future re-matches between both sets of teams. If you missed the event, you might like to watch the bouts which were recorded by Fans of Derby. Meanwhile, I'll see you next at the Melbourne Northside Roller's inaugural intra-league bout on September 15th.

I was, as always, accompanied by my partner in crime, the amateur derby photographer Beeetle. Go and take a look, and tag away, at her awesome collection of VRDL v NBR and VRDL v SSRG photos from this event!

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