A recurring theme at this year’s tournament has been how the crowd have backed the underdogs. The first team to capture the hearts and imaginations of the audience, both here and on social media, was the Ninjapan Rollers.
From the moment they first rolled out in the opening ceremony, using their 45 second slot to maximum crowd-hyping effect with leg whips and tricks galore, the crowd have been behind them all the way.
What is about Ninjapan that touched the fans and skaters here?
Robert Quadriguez announced all their games in Japanese on the alternate language live feed: “I think it’s the idea that we know about Team USA, we’ve seen them all play but Japan are a totally new team, they’ve come all the way over here to play and they’re so sweet about it.
“When they came out in the opening ceremony they didn’t know anyone there. They hadn’t brought any fans yet they completely won everyone over, just by showing how much they loved being here and how excited they were. It’s just incredible.”
The tale of Ninjapan took another twist when fans heard that the captain, Umesan, broke his skates during that ceremony – the same skates he’d been using for the past 15 years. Quad Skate Store jumped to the rescue though to supply him with a new pair for the tournament in another spirit of derby story.
As for their first game, fans literally flocked to see them play Scotland on Friday morning. Before the teams took to their benches the Rollers handed out little Japanese flags to those in the trackside seats while Zorro pulled a few martial arts poses on his skates.
Steep learning curve
Although comprehensively outplayed by Scotland, the roar when they scored their first points against the Scots was deafening and since that game the team have made huge strides in terms of rules and tactical understanding.
“This is the first time we actually know what derby really is and we learnt a lot from each bout, from supporters and the teams who gave us a lot of tips,” said Bubble, Ninjapan Roller.
“Everyone else is far more experienced than any of us and any tips or advice we could get we treasured,” added Ryo Chin.
GI Jones, a photographer following Team Canada, was one of those who offered a helping hand in the warm up area.
“Yesterday I was coaching them from behind the net. They didn’t have a bench coach and I’m looking at that and I didn’t see their girls either as they’d gone with Chow to get his collarbone done, so they were left with nobody, not even a translator.
“It was really fun, they were very open but I think they’re not used to derby culture yet and having someone from another team looking out for their best interests. We want to nurture you because you’re going to be our opponent, we want to teach you.”
The crowd in particular helped them along in the early games, screaming when to call off the jam.
“They’re all good skaters, although they may be lacking in tactics. You can see that they don’t have the experience but they’ve learnt so much,” said Manon from France.
“They are the spirit of roller derby. They are learning from the bottom up, where we’ve all been and for them to get to the World Cup level is fantastic.” Put A Sorkin It added.
Lolly from England: “Against Ireland they were taking up better positions, they were offering offence to their jammer and their jammers were working really hard. Even though there was only three [jammers] they never gave up, which is what’s really inspiring.”
Their loss against Ireland on Saturday morning prompted one of the most heartwarming moments of the tournament, when fans formed a guard of honour around the track instead of the customary high fives, a trend that has continued since.
With everybody on their side it must have been pretty hard to play against them?
“It’s absolutely horrible,” joked Lt Damn of All Ireland Men’s Roller Derby. “Their skill has just gotten better every game during the competition. The entire crowd is on their side, even our fans are on their side, I think even our bench coach was on their side!”
As for Japan themselves, they had no idea what awaited them in England.
“Before we came here we were just one of the teams out of all of them but now, knowing how the fans love us and giving cheer to us we just appreciate it so much,” said Ryo. “We had no idea we’d be so well supported.
“Many of our friends from the WFTDA league in Japan know how much support we’ve had; they could hear all the crowd cheering and they were surprised too. Telling them that all our merchandise sold out in 30 minutes, they didn’t believe it!”
Japan’s tournament finished on Saturday with a 132-237 defeat to Belgium in the Jug bracket but they hope the experience will lead to growth back home.
“We’d like to form a league or two and we’d like to join MRDA but there are a lot of things we have to do before that, so that is what we’re going to prepare for,” said Useman.
“We definitely need to recruit more people, eleven people isn’t enough, but what we’re doing now at the tournament is helping us spread the derby culture in Japan,” added Ryo.
No doubt there will now be an endless supply of help from derby folk across the world; what a great advert for the sport.