LONDON — It’s been a big 12 months in the life of UK derby: our first European tournament, a swath of new leagues and new recruits, growing recognition for the sport, and blood, sweat and tears for the hundreds of women and men working to make it happen. So when London Rollergirls announced that the Texas Rollergirls, originators of roller derby itself, were coming over to put on a bootcamp and play their travel team, London Brawling, it felt like UK derby was reaching a new level.
Formed in 2006, LRG have spent the last four years inspiring, generously assisting, and ably dominating leagues across the UK. They’ve set the bar for the sport in Europe, easily defeating their closest European rivals by margins of two and three hundred points, so whilst the rest of us have been playing catch up with the LRG, we wanted to know whether they would still be playing catch up with the rest of the world. Recently accepted as the first European WTFDA apprentice league and currently preparing for a three game tour of the US East coast in April, London Brawling were ready to go calling to some more faraway towns, but were they finally going to get their asses kicked? This was the game with the answers.
The Texas Rollergirls, formed in 2003 and currently sitting in third spot in the DNN power rankings, looked ready to put their mark on the game. If there were spandex rankings in derby, and there should be, they would surely win prizes. The Hustlers went straight to business with a power lineup in the first jam, but Acute Angel was swiftly sent off for a track cut, giving London’s Sky Rockit a surprise 10 point power jam and putting the Texans on the back foot. But it wasn’t long before Molotov M Pale took 10 points and equalized. As the Hustlers took a single point to lead, only to have Brawling take one back to re-equalise, a pattern began to emerge: both teams working their defense, delivering split-second call offs, and waiting. This was a game of very few, but very crucial, opportunities – and plenty of surprises.
Neither side could hang onto the lead for long: when Stefanie Mainey, jamming for Brawling, was sent to the box, Molotov seized her moment to snag a 10 point lead for the Hustlers, only to have Mainey storm out in the next jam to juke her way to another 10, evening the score again at 21-21. Both sides inched forward, tussling for a few points, right up until the final jam of the period when Molotov took a trip to the box and opened up another power jam for London. Sky Rockit hopped straight through the pack on the inside line to take lead, and the Brawling defense trapped Curvette to haul the pack back and force the Hustlers’ remaining blockers to overstretch. Sky sucked up an audacious minor track cut and cruised out of the jam 10 points up, bringing the half time score to 39-30 for London.
Both teams brought a strong defense to the second period. Texas dominated the front of the pack, with Babe Ruthless frequently forming a relentless one woman wall of doom for London’s jammers. Another power jam saw them regain the lead by one point, only to have London grab it back again, and two nail biting jams later the box was getting busy and points were tied at 55-55. Then at 57-57. Then at 61-61. Ten minutes on the clock, The Final Countdown on the PA, and dancing on the jam line: this was the greatest game of roller derby we’d seen in our lives.
The power ballads seemed to refuel the Texans, and they launched into the home straight determined to break the stalemate. Bloody Mary motored off the jam line, leaving Belle Starr to sweep in and take out Kamikaze Kitten. Mary breezed through the London defense to put the Hustlers into the lead by 4. Forced to play catch up, Brawling found themselves digging deep as their jammers’ minors caught up with them. When the Hustlers got another power jam, the London pack managed to outsprint Bloody Mary, but when Axis of Evon was sent off, Texas lost no time corralling a gazelle, allowing Acute Angel to add a further 3 points to their lead and leaving London with their jammer in the box at the start of the final play. Not content with a mere 6 point lead, the Hustlers pulled out a truly monstrous 15 point final jam and sealed the score at a decisive 84-63.
Verdict? Outstanding spandex. And a totally riveting game with standard setting play from both sides. UK audiences simply haven’t seen a game as fast, close, and tactically demanding – and we’ve never had the pleasure of seeing LRG as thoroughly challenged.
I caught up some Texans to get their thoughts on the game. Molotov said “It would’ve been really foolish for us to come here expecting to dominate.. as a team, we went into it like we’d go into one of our home games, not knowing how it would go. It was a rough game.. they had obviously studied our Nationals footage! But at the end of a week of traveling and training … going into the game with all those crazy emotions, it was awesome.”
“I was really surprised,” said Babe Ruthless, “not that they were good, but that they were really good … every trick we had they had it too.”
And how did London Brawling respond to their first defeat? “It was so, so awesome!” said Grievous Bodily Charm*. And how are they feeling about playing more US teams? “I was worried the tour would be intimidating” said Sky, “but now I feel like it will be really fun.” Team captain Kamikaze Kitten was typically focused: “I’ve never been so exhausted after fighting my way out of the pack,” she said “I’m determined to work harder.”
“I was so proud of everyone,” said Molotov. “All I could think was: congratulations.. I think they [LRG] are going to get a lot more teams wanting to play them.” So not just an outstanding game to watch, but a validating experience for London. “It feels like we’ve always been chasing America,” said May BTwisted, “and now we’re not just the little sisters anymore.”
Roll on the US tour! We’ll be watching it on the boutcasts.
* okay, possibly not in response to that exact question.