League leaders Edinburgh Monarchs travel to play Ipswich Witches tonight and team manager Alex Harkess doesn’t underestimate the scale of the challenge that awaits his side at Foxhall Heath.
Witches have often flattered to deceive in recent seasons, but their 2017 squad are already in third position in the Championship and are on target for a play-off position.
Harkess said: “Ipswich have strengthened since the start of the season, very successfully. They have brought in [former Monarch] Justin Sedgmen and he has been a good signing for them. They are a very good team and I’m sure they believe they will be in the play-offs, they are certainly contenders for that.”
Despite a couple of blips away from home Ipswich are now rock solid at Foxhall and Harkess observed: “They will now be hopeful of going through the whole season unbeaten at home, that’s their plan and they will probably achieve that.
“Ipswich is a very difficult place to go at the best of times let alone when they have such a strong team.
“But we’ll be going there in the same frame of mind as we always have in all our away fixtures, and that is to not leave empty handed.”
Two riders will be of critical importance to Monarchs’ chancess. One is Josh Pickering and the other is reserve Max Clegg.
Pickering hasn’t been to Ipswich before but he knows what to expect, saying: “I’ve heard their track is very grippy.” And Harkess said: “He hasn’t seen most of the tracks in the Championship before – that’s life, it’s a learning curve for him.
“What he has got to try and achieve now is getting out of the gate. If he doesn’t make the gate it’s a lot more difficult for him. It doesn’t matter how fast he is going, he’s only making up distance at the back.
“If he enters the first or second bend on level terms and puts himself into that scoring position I’m sure he’ll come on in leaps and bounds. He’s got to get his head straight first and take it from there.”
Clegg’s recent drop to reserve has already paid dividends and the young Englishman is scoring freely now. Harkess said: “Max is achieving what we thought he would achieve a year ago. He stalled a bit and didn’t make a good start to our season.
“He’s obviously more confident now and believes he can score a lot of points. He’s still only doing it away from home intermittently but he is getting better.
“We need to keep him at reserve but he won’t remain in that position for much longer with the amount of points he is now scoring.”
Monarchs go into the showdown on the back of a tight 49-44 home win against Sheffield Tigers at Armadale last week. Harkess thinks Monarchs, not for the first time, gift-wrapped their opponents too many points. “I felt we threw control of the match at them, they were not winning the match from us.”
Monarchs remain six points clear of the chasing pack at the top of the table but Harkess added: “We are not performing as well as I think we can do.
“I like to think there’s an awful lot better to come from the team. But it’s good that we enter the second half of the season at the top of the league and not bottom of the league.”
Monarchs face another potential play-off team in Redcar Bears at Armadale on Friday and Harkess saidd: “Redcar made a poor start to the season but beefed up their side and it will interesting to see whether they can hold on to a play-off spot.”
On Sunday in a rearranged fixture Monarchs travel to Newcastle Diamonds on league duty.