Edinburgh Monarchs will have to produce a great comeback if they are to keep alive their dream of winning a fourth British Premier League crown.
In the first leg of the Play-Off Grand Final at Armadale last night, Monarchs struggled to overcome Somerset Rebels and only scraped home with a wafer-thin 45-43 victory which places the Rebels firmly in the driving seat for Monday’s second leg at the Oaktree Arena.
The Rebels certainly can sense that they are on course to erase the heartache they suffered a year ago when they lost out on the title by a single point on aggregate to Scunthorpe Scorpions.
Last night’s meeting was marred by a spectacular crash involving Monarchs’ Hungarian star Jozsef Tabaka in heat nine. Tabaka had thundered underneath Rebels ace Nick Morris on the second bend and the red mist apparently came down as Morris, seemingly affronted by Tabaka’s overtake, speared the Monarchs rider going into the third bend which sent the home rider crashing through the safety fence at alarming speed.
Morris made no attempt to turn his bike and was disqualified from the rerun for dangerous riding by referee Stuart Wilson. But Morris’s actions were so reckless he was lucky not to be thrown out of the meeting altogether.
Tabaka has injured his left knee and was transferred by ambulance to hospital which caused a 45-minute delay to proceedings and is already ruled out of the deciding leg.
Tabaka’s pile-up underlined the need for a safety fence at Armadale which will be installed for next season under new rules for all Premier League tracks this season.
Monarchs captain Derek Sneddon said: “When you saw the horrible-looking crash Jozsef was involved in you wonder why it has taken so long for air fences to be introduced to our league from next season. You can’t put a price on a rider’s safety and it was very fortunate that Jozsef’s crash was not a lot worse than it could have been.”
The loss of Tabaka took the shine off the whole evening and Monarchs co-boss John Campbell said: “It was so unlucky for Jozsef. From our point of view Jozsef has had some very good races at Somerset this year and to be without him now could make a critical difference to our chances. But as this team have proved before you can never write them off.”
Even before Tabaka’s misfortune, though, Monarchs had toiled to build up any degree of momentum. It was as if, having been forced to wait three weeks for this showdown to come around, some of the Monarchs squad appeared to be afflicted with stage fright.
Having failed to grab an advantage in the first heat, Craig Cook headed home by Jason Doyle, his only defeat, Monarchs simply were not able to crush the Rebels resistance, even although they gave themselves a glimmer of hope when Liam Carr and Sneddon snatched a 5-1 in the second race.
In an eerie portent of what was to come perhaps, Tabaka was nudged by Rebels star Alex Davies in heat three causing him to lift and tumble off on the second bend and he was harshly disqualified by the referee who made a series of howlers on the night.
Sneddon then shed a chain in the next heat and these calamities cost Monarchs priceless points they could ill-afford to lose, By the halfway mark the Rebels actually led 24-23 and no one would have been surprised had they gone onto win the meeting. But a 5-0 in that eventful ninth race from Claus Vissing and Sneddon, who replaced Tabaka, edged Monarchs in front 28-24 and after 13 races Monarchs increased their lead to six points.
But a hammer blow arrived in heat 14 when Rebels pair Josh Grajczonek and Charles Wright secured maximum points for their team against Sneddon and Carr.
Somerset were quite content to see the majority of the heats shared as this is what they came to do.
Cook was desperate to win the league with Monarchs but admitted: “It is going to be so difficult now. Somerset’s top three made life very difficult for us and what happened to Jozsef just knocked us for six.
“But Somerset are professional to their fingertips. We have beaten them at their place already this year, we must do it again.”
Rebels team manager Garry May said: “We came here to do a containing job on Monarchs and are delighted that we restricted them to such a narrow win and we are hopefuly we can turn our narrow deficit into victory in front of our own fans on Monday.”
Rebels promoter Debbie Hancock, while dismayed that Monarchs lost the services of Tabaka, commented: “We came here to win but the most important thing is to make sure you leave with all your riders’ in one piece. Monarchs have already re-written some “Tales of the Unexpected” this season and will have to add another extraordinary chapter if they want to claim a fourth league championship.
Monarchs: Cook 14, Sneddon 8, Vissing 8, Pijper 7, Fricke 3, Carr 3, Tabaka 2.
Somerset: Grajczonek 12, Doyle 11, Wright 7, Morris 5, Newman 4, Davies 4, Rose 0.