Rainy City’s gorgeous ‘Thunderdome’

Up in the area for the weekend, Fenton and I caught a scent of a derby match being played close to where we were visiting family.

The match took place in a magnificent purpose-built arena in Oldham – the Thunderdome, home to one of the big Manchester leagues, Rainy City Rollergirls. This match saw the RCRG take on one of the major Leeds teams, Hot Wheel Roller Derby. Harking from Manchester and Leeds ourselves, we figured this wasn’t to be missed, as an excuse to bicker about the superior side of the Pennines if nothing else.

We’re both still pretty fresh to the game, this being the second match we’ve ever attended. So I’m not about to proclaim that we fully understood what was happening. But even still, there were a lot of lessons I was able to take away from the game; I hope I can use what I’ve picked up on to help guide my own development as a player.

Top 5 learnings from the match:

A successful jammer avoids being hit

There were some astonishing displays of agility from both Rainy City and Hot Wheel, with jammers performing all kinds of moves to evade checks from opposing blockers. It solidified for me the importance of mohawks, transitions, jumps, and assists, as well as pack and spatial awareness – which can turn a potential big hit into a glancing knock.

Keep your feet within the track boundaries

One of the most efficient ways to prevent a jammer getting through the wall is to make sure she has to keep cycling behind the pack. Both blockers and jammers in this game behaved almost like their feet were magnetically repelled from the outer-track. Hockey stops, toe-stops, one-foot transitions, apex jumps… It was really extraordinary how good their awareness of the boundaries were, and how skilfully they could avoid stepping outside the line.

I think it beginning to dawn on me how important this is. It’s not about knocking the jammer to the floor, or using all your force to smash her out of the way. It’s about getting her to step off the track, while keeping yourself firmly inbounds. And then wheeling back to maximise your recycle gains. A huge hit means nothing if it puts you out of play and negates the risk of her cut-track penalty.

There isn’t one ‘best’ way to jam

One of the best things I heard all day was my Fenton’s casual observation that one of Hot Wheel’s jammers seemed to have a more ‘smash-em-crash-em’ style, while the opposing Rainy City star-bearer was zipping around the wall with a light-footed, juking style.

It reminded me that for all my worrying about the ‘right’ way to jam, or the ‘best’ way to get through the wall, that it truly comes down to what works best for you, and what method takes advantage of the other team’s weaknesses in defence.

Speed is key

We all know the infamy of the 27-in-5 lap test, and the lesser-slandered 13-second lap time in the minimum skills tests. A lot of skaters are dismissive of the tests – perhaps to appease the confidence of pre-mins skaters struggling to hit the numbers. But it’s common to get the impression that speed doesn’t matter apart from to pass the tests. That couldn’t be further from the truth!

It was clear from this game that as jammer, getting out of the pack does not mean you’re out of the woods. I was surprised how often opposing blockers broke out of their formation to chase the jammer for one last hit.

One jammer from Rainy City – Go Go Chanel, exhibited an incredible skill at accelerating from pack speed to fast-pace. This technique meant she was able to shoot out of the engagement zone before any chasing blockers could catch her to land a hit.

As a skater who currently struggles to nail the duck-runs and toe-stop starts, I feel that this was irrefutable evidence in the importance of being able to get out of the way as quickly as possible. The very last thing you want as jammer is to put in hard-earned effort breaking through the wall, only to have victory snatched away by a blocker knocking you off track just as you take the lead.

Offensive blocking can be critical

As a blocker, your primary objective is the stop the other team’s jammer. There’s no room for interpretation. If the enemy jammer is on the track, she’s your top priority. However… There were a number of power-jams in this match, and blockers from both teams were brilliant at using this to their advantage, and putting in some offensive tactics.

One technique commonly used was to wait for the jammer to hit the opposing wall, loosening up the blockers. At this point, the jammer’s team-mates would rush the other blockers, cramping them up and making room for their jammer to pass through unchecked.

Another technique took a while for me to recognise, as I find the ‘pack definition’ rules a little mind-boggling at times. However, when I saw it, I recognised it as ‘getting the goat’. The principle behind this being that the offensive blockers isolate and contain a defending blocker away from their team-mates, with the effect that the remaining defensive blockers are restricted in how far forward they can stray without leaving the engagement zone. If the jammer can force forwards, eventually the blockers will no longer be ‘in-play’, and must stop blocking the jammer.

Overall

Despite putting up a great fight, Hot Wheel Roller Derby took defeat at the hands of Rainy City Rollergirls. However both teams were incredible, and fielded some wily strategy and skilled players to great effect.

I won’t hear the end of Manchester’s victory for a while, but I think for the experience and insight I gained, it’s worth putting up with a little teasing.

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