Thelma Track. Knocked back. Still on track. Clearly winded. Stops for a moment. Stands there, hands on hips. Shaking her head as if realising there’s no way past the brick wall. The one emblazoned 888 that lies ahead whichever line she tries to take. Others might be tempted to give up around now, pass the star to their pivot or whatever, but such surrender’s not for Thelma – probably the best opposition jammer we’ve ever seen here at Haywards Heath – at least not right now. Nothing for it but to take a deep breath, another run-up, another try, another solid shoulder block and she’s down on the outside this time. Brighton bridging, pulling her back from the turn four approach to turn two. Starting again. Half a track further back. Head down. Breathing heavily. She’s skating on fumes now…
They said this was going to be easy. The stats nerds with their charts and algorithms, impenetrable calculations founded on a whole history’s worth of European derby results. 80% chance of a Brighton win, they calculated, victory margin of 40-50 points. Have they got it so wrong? At the moment it certainly seems that way. The French visitors, mustering as much Gallic poise and Parisian panache as a derby track allows, are tearing the Rockers apart in these opening exchanges. Three players alternating in the visitors’ star. Thelma Track, diminutive and deadly, finding space where none exists to skip straight through the Brighton four-walls. Rose Hyène and Bully Bunker, swift and feisty, are racking up plenty of points too. Whilst the French jammers put up solid numbers in almost every jam, Brighton’s are finding the blue pack an incredibly tough proposition to pass. It doesn’t help that the Rockers penalty box is proving such a go-to destination for the Sussex side, with several hometown blockers following The Mighty Mighty Bash’s (post-star pass) first jam and (star-clad) fourth jam lead.
Team timeout Brighton. Six jams in. Seven points so far for Brighton, seventy (yes, 70) for Paris. Regular bench coach Mass Janeycide is supposed to be on maternity leave, but she rushes from the bleachers to join the timeout huddle. Can the Rockers pull something out of the hat? If what happens next was the plan, it’s a somewhat confusing one, as a succession of Brighton jammers take lead only to instantly call it off with no attempt to get round and score points, even when the rival jammer is in the box. Our mobile phone vibrates frenziedly as friends from various parts of the crowd bombard us with “why are they calling early?” texts. We don’t know. Nor does the announcer, grizzled – and grizzly – derby veteran El Toupée. Indeed, several of the team will later tell us they were just as confused by this tactic as the crowd was. At least the Brighton pack are holding up the nimble Paris starheads better now, with a very sturdy lone blocker defence on Hyène from Dr Whooligan being a particular standout.
It had been the typical pre-bout preparation for Bash. (Or at least, what we imagine her pre-bout preparation to be.) 6,000 press-ups, 2,000 squat thrusts and 750 burpees before breakfast, then taking the team bus to Haywards Heath. We don’t mean sitting on it, we mean yanking it up and onto her shoulder, then walking it up the A23/A272 to the venue. A few early penalty calls may have restricted her impact in the first half, but right now that bus-ferrying right shoulder is working overtime, sending the Paris Number Six – four foot tall first half nemesis – back, down, over and out, time and time again. Doing the same to anyone else sporting a white star, and any of the French blockers who get too close. Linking up especially well with the likes of Derby McGee and Hairy Fairy against Bully Bunker now in what has grown, over the past half-hour, into a super tough Brighton barricade. No pasarán. Meanwhile a blur of black kit, cyan trim and star, yellow and green wheels, is circling – part seagull, part vulture – and edging up those hometown numbers…
Janeycide stays in her seat for the second Rockers timeout. The Sussex side have been taking lead more regularly than the visitors the last dozen or so jams, but this has hardly affected the scoreline. The Paris jammers have been hot on their heels almost every time. PRG’s starheads are so pacy that, even when they break through late, they’re forcing their opposite numbers – Bash, Chariot Sophia, Whooligan – to hit it and quit it for a couple of points at best. El Toupée bantering over the mic with Mother Trucker as the latter fixes track tape between jams. Rockers packs starting to hold the French jammers up more as the period draws to a close. Emma the Condemner drilling a path for Sophia to pick up a natural five, but these are Brighton’s last points of the half. Scores on screen. It may not be Mont Blanc, but there’s certainly a mountain to climb. 42-131 to the visitors. As if the scoreline wasn’t disheartening enough, the leisure centre bar has run out of Guinness. The Rockers need a radical change in the score, so we’ll go for a radical change of drink. Pear Magners. Never had it before. Perhaps it’s absolutely delicious, a taste sensation that will revive our spirits, whilst on track the Brighton team revive their chances. It actually resembles sugared vinegar and we end up tipping half of it away. This doesn’t bode well.
Half time cluster of folk we know by the main doors to the centre. Football Dude, The Brewer, Pub Lady and others still puzzled by the early calls, but now pondering the scoreline gap. Any glimmers of hope? Paris only have twelve players and rely heavily on pace – maybe they’ll start to tire in the second period? The Brewer theorises that Brighton may have allowed the scoreline to drift deliberately, as there’s a student film crew here making a short documentary about the game. “Can you imagine how wild the crowd will go if Brighton claw it back and win in the last few minutes? It would make for a great narrative,” he insists. It’s a theory grounded in straw-clutching fantasy and tongue-in-cheek false optimism, though, rather than the harsh reality of the track. The Rockers have come back from a 50-point half time deficit before, but today’s is close to a hundred. A gap too wide to bridge is the general consensus here. The team no doubt have a different view. Brighton have never lost an open door bout in Sussex, and have spent the whole of half time discussing tactics, making plans. Ultrafoxx, who made her Rockers debut today and featured in a few first half jams, is on the booze. She’s been told she won’t be playing in the second period. Rosters have been shuffled. Line-ups tweaked. Experienced players told to expect to feature more heavily. Brighton are doing what you do when you’re under siege, as they surely are. They’re bringing out the big guns.
Chariot Sophia is tearing up the track like there’s an alligator snapping at her heels. This isn’t a Sussex power jam, but it sure as hell feels like one, as she hurtles round and round and around and around; her opponent somehow lost, bullied and bossed, inside and behind a concrete wall of black shirts; Sophia is no longer racing her rival, but racing the clock, as the seconds tick away – of both the jam and the match – towards nothingness. One set of numbers, the timer, dropping fast. Another, the Brighton score, rising with as much speed as Sophia’s legs, wheels and feet can bestow. At one point almost everybody in the banked bleacher seats will rise to their own feet, arms aloft, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, as we have done in all these bits in italics. Let’s go back to where we were. To the start of the second half…
Hooligan added to the Paris rotation. A sign that the jamming trio used in the first period need bolstering with fresh legs, perhaps? Either way, we look forward to Hooligan lining up against Whooligan on the jammer line, if only to see how announcer El Toupée deals with it. Rose (Bleed) has already starred up alongside Rose (Hyène) a couple of times, but at least they had differentiable second names. This is better from Brighton. Racey and Hyde ‘N’ Shriek marshalling Hooligan as Shambolic pulls the Rockers to the 50 point mark. Sophia hitting Thelma off as Bash racks up a handful in the seventh. Whooligan v Hooligan. 74-140. The cushion is being eroded. The Bastille is starting to crumble. Paris, rattled, call a team timeout. Brighton are edging it back now. Their packs are getting the measure of a slightly tiring PRG star rotation, with Thelma and Bully’s fleet-footed apex jumping now a rarer commodity. Rockers jammers are getting more purchase from the super tough visiting blockers – Princess Bitch, Meryl Strip-Her, Dark Pistol, Roxy Bat Girl and others – now too, but Brighton have another enemy in play, one that’s not dressed in blue.
The clock. As the tenth jam ends, with Thelma forced to call as a long tussle with Whooligan allows Sham to catch up, it’s 78-143. The Rockers have closed the gap from 89 points to 65 in ten jams. That’s an average of 2.4 points per jam. At such a rate, Brighton will take the lead in 27 jams time, but with barely fifteen minutes left on the clock, even half that number of jams before the final whistle is unlikely. They really need to ratchet their point-scoring up. Two or three big hauls are required. In short, the Rockers need some power jams, but this Paris side have been keeping it very clean. (As indeed have Brighton in the second period. Penalty box addict Sham will only pick up one foul all match, and will make sure everyone at the after party knows this.) Hope arrives in Jam 13. Thelma held back by a well marshalled pack, frustrated, picks up a penalty. Crowd goes wild for Sophia on the PJ. Calls it with Thelma standing. Triple figures. 101-156. Sham starts as the only jammer on track. Busy penalty box for Paris now. Bash lead next, then Whooligan – a recent addition to the regular rotation, growing stronger in the role as the game progresses – for a four ‘n’ call. Then comes the seventeenth jam of the second period, the one we began this whole bout report describing.
Today’s official programme features an interview with Bash. “I love hitting someone so hard that they fall to the ground spectacularly,” she says, “and then maybe just looking at them for a second before hitting them to the floor again, just to make sure they know it was me.” It’s an attitude that seems to have rubbed off on her teammates, if the big grin Hairy Fairy bears before, during and after sending Thelma flying is anything to go by. A succession of power jams follow and we reach Jam 20. Less than five minutes left on the clock. 141-167. We’ve already told you what happens next. A Brighton pack holding back the Paris jammer. A Rockers starhead – Chariot Sophia – circling, five point scoring pass after five point scoring pass. Fans on their feet after the third pass. 166-167. One blocker passed. Tied game. Another. Lead change. Brighton ahead for the first time in a match they’ve spent most of 50-100 points behind. A fifth pass follows the fourth. 35-0 for the jam. An awesome haul for a Power Jam, but this wasn’t a Power Jam. The Paris jammer was on track throughout. Unfortunately for her, so was Bash and the rest of the Rockers pack.
There’s a minute and change left. 176-167 to Brighton. Empty penalty box for both sides. Sham v Rose Hyène. Brighton just need to get lead and call it. Just get lead, Rockers… Just get lead… Paris get lead… Dammit… First scoring pass… 176-171… Sham through now, chasing her down… PRG jammer hits the pack and calls, but points for Sham too… 178-174… Less than 30 seconds on the clock… The only way to force a final jam is by calling a team timeout… Maude Fondeo on the Brighton bench indicates a timeout, but she’s asking if anyone else wants one… The period timer has stopped with one second remaining… There’s confusion… There’s always confusion at the end of a bout when Paris play in the South East… Hearts in mouths for the fans… Ref huddle in centre track… Everyone waiting to see what’s decided… Will this one end in an eight minute official timeout, scores changed to a tie and an overtime jam?… Seems unlikely, but that’s what happened when Paris were at London Rockin’ Rollers last year… Rockers head ref LaserHammer was a pack ref at that one… Déjà vu, perhaps, for him?… The refs disperse… The decision is made… Announcer announces it to the crowd… No-one in a position to call a timeout did… The clock had already run down… The game is over. Paris look suitably pissed off. Hometown fans scream, cheer and file down to trackside for the laps ‘n’ slaps. Every time you think a Rockers home bout couldn’t possibly be any more exciting, any more nerve-wracking, any more dramatic than the last one… somehow it is.
Over at the after party, the crew filming documentary PIVOT, BLOCK & JAM are out in force. “Everywhere we turned today there was a camera in our face,” laughs one of the Rockers, turning to see a camera in her face. The Brewer wisely turns down our suggestion of telling the team his half time theory; that they let Paris take a big lead to give the documentary a more dramatic narrative. They’d probably punch him at the very suggestion. As indeed would Paris, the French side boasting several of the paciest jammers and indeed – whether running, nay sprinting, interference or speeding up the packs – fastest reacting blockers we’ve seen from a home opponent. There are not many PRG players here this evening, partly as they have another bout 200 miles away tomorrow, though one also suspects many are too narked at how things finished to wanna party… although it must be said, they confounded the predictions and played well above neutral expectations. Any anger at today’s result will carry over to Sunday’s game, with Bristol suffering that ire in the form of a commanding 398-119 Paris victory. You feel the Rockers might enjoy the thought that their comeback today could have impacted Bristol’s fate tomorrow – the West Country side having surprisingly knocked Brighton out of last year’s UKRDA Southern Tournament – although the weekend’s results will actually see Paris leapfrog above the Sussex side in the rankings (up from 28th to 16th in Europe, with Brighton dropping to 19th).
The Brighton league look forward rather than back. For now to the after party fun and games, as Conspicuous Banger invites players from both today’s sides to bite on her increasingly trimmed box. Then to the 30th of this month, when ten Rockers will take part in a mud and obstacle strewn race to raise funds for the league – see the link below for sponsorship details. Then beyond to May 10th, when they return to Haywards Heath to take on the Middlesbrough Milk Rollers. MMR, the league that took a whole year off bouting to train themselves tougher. MMR, the league who currently rank second in England (10th in Europe) and had two players in the most recent national side fourteen. That MMR. It will be the toughest challenge Brighton have ever faced at home. Yet as we leave the after party – with its unexpected air of expected, rather than surprise, victory – we know to never underestimate these eight-wheeled warrior women again.
[Photos by Rebecca Cornford]
MARCH 30TH PLEDGES: https://www.justgiving.com/yimby/brightonrockersrollerderby
MAY 10TH FB EVENT: https://www.facebook.com/events/263499857152210
MAY 10TH TICKETS: http://www.brightonrockers.com/#!tickets/cttr
BRIGHTON ROCKERS: http://www.brightonrockers.com
PARIS ROLLERGIRLS: http://www.parisrollergirls.com