Holders Edinburgh Monarchs still feel they have one hand on their Premier League Knockout Cup trophy after narrowly losing 49-41 against Somerset Rebels in last night’s first leg of the Final at the Oak Tree Arena.
Monarchs were twelve points down after nine heats but staged a spirited fightback over the last few races to reel the Rebels in and boost their hopes of retaining the trophy they won last season when they host the deciding tie at Armadale on Friday.
Monarchs skipper Craig Cook, who stormed to a superb 15-point maximum, smashed the track record in winning the first heat but unfortunately partner Justin Sedgmen trailed in last and the capital side had to settle for a 3-3 share of the spoils.
Somerset then struck the first blow in the next heat when their reserve duo Paul Starke and guest Hynek Stichauer flashed from the gate to easily defeat Monarchs’ Ben Morley, who replaced the crocked Max Clegg, and Rob Branford for a 5-1 advantage to lead 8-4. Monarchs were also without influential German ace Kevin Wolbert who was injured at the weekend and used the rider replacement facility to cover his absence.
The Rebels moved six points clear in the third race when Richie Worrall and Charles Wright grabbed a 4-2 against Sam Masters and Erik Riss, who scored 14 points on his last visit when Monarchs defeated the Rebels in their Sky televised league clash in August.
Riss did not look so dominant this time, although he went on to brilliantly defeat fiery Rebels No 1 Brady Kurtz in a tasty heat ten battle. However Monarchs pulled off their first advantage of the night in the fifth race thanks to a 4-2 from Cook, who won by a mile, and Sedgmen who claimed the vital third-place point, and this reduced the Rebels lead to just four points, 17-13. Game on.
However the Rebels re-established their six-point cushion with a 4-2 in the next heat after Kurtz held off a fierce challenge from Masters to take the chequered flag.
At this stage Cook and Masters, a former Rebels rider, were fighting hard to keep their side in the tie especially with Sedgmen just picking up three points from his opening three outings.
And a further 4-2 verdict for the Rebels in heat eight increased their lead to eight points. Monarchs were crucially being outgunned at reserve with Branford, who does not count Somerset as one of his favourite circuits, struggling after finishing last in his first three rides but atoning later on.
Somerset then turned the screw in heat nine with a 5-1 from Worrall and Wright against Masters and Morley to lead 33-21 and with no tactical rides allowed in cup competitions this season, Monarchs were in danger of letting the match run away from them. However a 4-2 from Cook and Sedgmen in heat ten cut Monarchs’ arrears to ten points, 38-28 with Cook looking invincible.
Monarchs now began to dig in and a timely 5-1 from Riss, his second win of the evening, and Branford in heat 12 after Wright was excluded, got the capital side to within six points of their hosts, 39-33 and a grandstand finish loomed.
A 5-1, though, from the home side in heat fourteen stopped Monarchs in their tracks and was a late body blow for the visitors. But a 4-2 for Monarchs in the last race keeps the door very much ajar for them in the second leg.
Monarchs co-promoter John Campbell said: “It was an unbelievable performance, I thought we were going to get blown away at one stage, but we have now given ourselves an excellent chance of winning the cup again.”