Edinburgh Monarchs’ title bid on a knife-edge

Monarchs star Sam Masters leads Nick Morris, Paul Starke and team-mate Derek Sneddon at the Oaktree Arena. Pic: Ron MacNeill
Monarchs star Sam Masters leads Nick Morris, Paul Starke and team-mate Derek Sneddon at the Oaktree Arena. Pic: Ron MacNeill
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EDINBURGH MONARCHS’ hopes of a fourth Premier League speedway crown to complete a trophy treble in 2014 remain on a knife-edge after a rollercoaster performance at Somerset Rebels last night in the first leg of the Play Off Grand Final.

The Rebels, who are bidding to win back-to-back titles, triumphed 54-42, but they had Monarchs on the ropes in the first half and may come to regret failing to press home their advantage to take full control of the contest ahead of tonight’s deciding tie at Armadale, a clash which is not going to be for the faint-hearted.

Somerset, who toppled Monarchs in the final a year ago, looked set to bulldoze the Capital side out of sight early on after snatching a quartet of 5-1 advantages over the first seven heats. They led 29-16 with Monarchs unable to match their hosts out of the gate on a super slick track surface, which is pretty much the norm at the Oaktree Arena.

It was imperative that Monarchs’ top four were on the money and, while Craig Cook and Sam Masters posted double-figure returns, Max Fricke and Justin Sedgmen struggled at the start to get points on the board.

Sedgmen, a former Somerset rider – as is Masters – trailed in last in his opening two rides and switched bikes over the latter part of the meeting which saw the Aussie improve slightly.

Cook and Masters both won their tactical outing opportunities and this without doubt helped stem the Somerset tide which was threatening to engulf Monarchs. Somerset, however, kept up the pressure and were 17 points to the good after heat nine.

Monarchs, are nothing if not self aware this season and, while alarm bells must have been sounding at one stage, they kept their composure and refused to buckle.

Their rousing recovery began in heat 13 when Cook and Masters produced a priceless 5-1 over Nick Morris and guest Edward Kennett and this cut Somerset’s lead to 12 points, 48-36, which helped galvanise the whole team. Somerset grabbed a 4-2 in the next race, but Monarchs matched that in the vital heat-15 top scorers’ race when Cook defeated Rebels’ top man Charles Wright, with Masters fighting his way from the back for the vital third-place point which could just make all the difference to the aggregate score.

Monarchs team boss John Campbell today admitted he thought his side were “down and out” but is now bullish at the prospect that Monarchs will wipe out their arrears in front of what should be a bumper home crowd this evening and hopefully see out the season in style.

Said Campbell: “The way we fought back just shows the competitive nature of our team and also their capability. We were down and out – there is no doubt about that – but we battled back into contention and the destiny of the championship is very much on a knife-edge.”

Asked to explain why Monarchs got off to such a sluggish start, Campbell said: “We were outgated in every race, and it did not help our cause either when Craig was knocked off in the fifth heat and was excluded, and a 3-3 turned into a 5-1 against us. Gating was so important at the start and for probably the only time this season, we were unable to do that. But, as we moved into the second half of the match, we realised if we wanted to win the league we had to be within touching distance of Somerset.

“Suddenly, our gating got better and we began to trap better than the Somerset boys.”

Campbell was a bit surprised not to get more from Sedgmen and said: “Justin rode one bike for two races then changed to another. He became better but not great. With Justin, however, it’s all in the head and, if he has a bad first race, it tends to be like that throughout the whole meeting.”

Somerset creamed Derek Sneddon and Aaron Fox in the reserve battle with their pairing of Todd Kurtz and Paul Starke outscoring the Monarchs duo by a large 11-point margin.

Yet, despite this shortfall at the tail-end, Monarchs were not too harshly punished as a consequence. Campbell said: “We never give up and many would have settled for a ten-point defeat before the meeting, and we are only two points worse off.

“We are certainly not out of it and the confidence in our camp at the end was fantastic. And believe me, Somerset will feel annoyed with themselves because they should have beaten us by twenty. They will now think that tonight’s decider is going to be a very difficult match for them now.”

Cook, who top scored with 15 points, said: “I’m very confident that we will overcome this deficit and, with our fans’ backing, I think we will definitely do it.”

Masters added: “Everybody in the team believes we have a great chance of pulling this tie back. I was a bit disappointed in that heat-15 race. We were looking for a 5-1 to cut our arrears to just ten, but I made a poor start and couldn’t get in front of Craig from the gate, and had to fight a bit for my third-place point.”

Somerset: Wright 13, Aspgren 12, Morris 10, Starke 8, Kurtz 6, Kennett 5.

Monarchs: Cook 15, Masters 14, Fricke 7, Sedgmen 3, Fox 2, Sneddon 1.