Edinburgh Monarchs begin their 2016 speedway campaign at Armadale tonight with an inter-league challenge encounter against Belle Vue Aces.
It means a swift return to the Lothian Arena of former skipper Craig Cook who joined the Manchester club full time during the winter.
Monarchs begin their defence of the Premier League championship in three weeks time against Workington Comets.
Monarchs are bidding to win the title for the third time in a row and they have gambled on new signing Jye Etheridge becoming a possible trump card for the quest to continue their domination of the Premier League.
Some pundits are predicting Monarchs’ stranglehold in the second tier could be finally loosened this time around without prolific scoring duo Cook and Justin Sedgmen.
But Monarchs have a long tradition of giving young Australian riders their big break in the UK and feel Etheridge is a perfect fit for this year’s side who had to de-strengthen following their championship success last October.
For Etheridge the difference in culture is going to be a big challenge and not every Australian has found the transition easy to handle.
Etheridge admits: “This is a massive leap for me and also the start of my professional career.
“I know I face a big change because I normally just do around 20 meetings a year back home. I accept it’s a far bigger programme in the Premier League especially if you get through to the play-offs and any cup finals.
“It’s going to be a massive shock to the system but hopefully I can adjust to racing life here pretty quickly.”
The 21-year-old had yearned to try his luck in this country but sensibly bided his time before taking the plunge. “I have only been riding speedway for four years,” he said. “I haven’t had that much experience on a bike.
“My father wanted me to complete my apprenticeship first before I came across and then luckily I got offered a contract with Edinburgh which was great.
”I had chased a berth in the UK because I felt I had reached the level required to make a go of things here and now I have been given the opportunity and I need to make it work for me and the team.”
One of the first hurdles Etheridge will have to overcome is how to gain mastery of an Armadale track which has proved troublesome for many.
But after going through his paces in Friday’s practice session last week, Etheridge said: ”The track is unreal but I felt good despite feeling a bit tired towards the end.
“I had done some laps down at Wolverhampton prior to Armadale and both circuits are quite similar in size and shape and I will try to ride Armadale the same.”
If Etheridge feels daunted at joining a club like Edinburgh who have been ridiculously successful over the last two years, he doesn’t betray any misgivings.
”We want to win the title again and will see what happens.
“This is my first year and the Edinburgh management have told me they are not expecting too much from me. As long as I can maintain my starting five-point average, they will be happy I think.
“But I would like to push it up to six or six and a half points by the end of the season and hopefully I can make that happen.”
Monarchs’ other brand new face is 16-year-old Cumbrian rookie Daniel Bewley who will partner Max Clegg at reserve.
Bewley impressed during Monarchs’ open practice session and how quickly he progresses may well determine if Monarchs will be able to hold their own at the tail-end against some of their rivals.
It is going to be a tough baptism for Bewley, who only started riding speedway last September, yet the youngster does have promise which was evidenced when he top scored with 11 points for his Belle Vue Colts team in their 51-39 defeat by Cradley Heathens on Monday evening. He promised: “I will do my very best for Edinburgh.”
Skipper Sam Masters carries the mantle of emulating Cook’s leadership of 2015 and is not planning anything radical.
He said: “It’s a privilege to be captain of the team because Edinburgh are probably the best club in the country.
“I think we have a good team again and we just have to stick to what we have been doing because the last couple of years have been the best ever for the riders and everybody connected to the club.
“Our aim is always to finish in the top six which gets us into the play-offs and anything can happen after that. This is our plan once again, I feel good about the season.”
MONARCHS 2016: PEN PICS
Bio: After the tremendous form he displayed at the latter end of 2014, Masters had been expected to kick on from there, but last season did not pan out as he had hoped. A bad wrist injury while riding for Leicester in the Elite League hampered his campaign. Captain this year and plenty expected from him.
Bio: A poor year with Glasgow in 2014 might have dissuaded some from taking Wolbert on again, but Monarchs knew he was far better than his average suggested. Their judgment proved spot on as Wolbert turned out to be a very dependable performer without being truly spectacular. He should help fill the void left by Craig Cook.
Bio: Riss, who has shed 13 kilos over the winter, completed a respectable debut season for Monarchs and while he doesn’t have complete mastery of Armadale quite yet, the young German will only improve with time. He excelled on occasions away from home and has the potential to be a key performer for Monarchs this term.
Born: West Yorkshire
Bio: Clegg was overwhelmed that Monarchs handed him his first chance at senior level in 2015 and that gratitude sometimes proved an obstacle as Clegg became too anxious in his efforts not to let Monarchs down. But by the end of the season he was one of the most exciting riders round Armadale. He needs to convince himself of his own ability and when he does that, he should find that a lot of the away circuits are not quite as menacing as he sometimes imagines.
Bio: Fisher won two titles with Monarchs in 2008 and 2010. He didn’t have a great year with Plymouth in 2015 and he will put that down to some outside distractions. He has a reputation for trying to pull off impossible moves which has cost him points at times. Will he rein in his cavalier side? Yeah, right. It’s what the public love about him.
Bio: Monarchs have a long reputation for giving chances to up-and-coming Aussie riders and will be hoping this latest one to step off the conveyor belt will blossom into a useful asset. He will probably find the UK racing scene hectic but will also want to prove his capabilities early on to help show his ambitions.
Born: Maryport, Cumbria
Bio: Bewley earned his reserve place after impressing Monarchs at their practice session last week, but his lack of experience and short time in the sport means he faces a challenging and difficult debut season in the Premier League. Monarchs have made it clear they simply want to see the youngster progress. If he develops as they hope and scores two or three points per meeting, they will be satisfied.