MONARCH Oxford Cheetahs were made to dig deep, before taking an excellent 50-40 victory over the Glasgow Tigers in their opening Cab Direct Championship play-off fixture at Oxford Stadium last night (Wednesday).
It was the opening match in Group B of the play-offs – a mini-league consisting of Oxford (second in the regular league table), Glasgow (third) and Redcar (fifth) and therefore Cheetahs are now top of their group on two points. Scoring is as in the regular league campaign, with two points for a win, one point for an aggregate victory, and Superheats to decide ties.
For much of the evening, Cheetahs appeared to be in a dogfight for victory on the night. But in the closing stages, they not only secured that, but also built up a lead to be in a position to defend the aggregate bonus point when the two teams meet again in Scotland at the Peugeot Ashfield Stadium a week on Tuesday (September 26).
Tigers have recently been boasted by the late-season signing of Russian Vadim Tarasenko on a gift average, but they were still found wanting when it mattered most last night.
Glasgow were very much up for the fight, as displayed in Heat 1, when Chris Harris flew under Sam Masters on the third bend. But 16-year-old Ashton Boughen won Heat 2 as Cheetahs moved in front with a 4-2.
Lewis Kerr held off Benjamin Basso in Heat 3, while Jordan Jenkins showed his determination to take third. Tom Brennan rounded Jenkins with a lap remaining, but the Cheetah switched to the outside and flew back around his opponent on the final bend.
That moved Cheetahs 11-7 ahead, while Tigers moved back within two points after five races, before Oxford took a 5-1 in Heat 6, after some sublime team-riding from Masters, who settled behind team-mate Cameron Heeps to ensure a 5-1 ahead of Tarasenko.
Tigers again hit back with a 4-2 in Heat 7, but Jenkins produced a steely second bend in Heat 9, to push under Tarasenko and take a notable heat victory. Kerr also chased the Russian, as Cheetahs pulled six points ahead for a second time with a 4-2. Tigers then took successive 4-2s and the gap was just two points at 34-32 heading into the interval.
Basso had beaten both Nicholls and Masters in his preceding rides, but Kerr defeated him for a second time in Heat 12, while Henry Atkins took a key third place ahead of Lee Complin.
There have been some great Heat 13 races at Cowley this season, and last night produced another. Tarasenko took the lead around the outside, but Masters forced a route under him on the back straight and then Nicholls flew around him after a lap. It was very close at times and Nicholls kissed the fence on the back straight of the second lap, but Cheetahs held onto a 5-1 and moved eight points ahead.
The previously unbeaten Harris had finished last in Heat 13 but responded with a win in Heat 14 when he came into the race as a tactical substitute. But the action was behind him, as both Jenkins and Atkins overtook Brennan, to take a 3-3 and ensure that Cheetahs won on the night.
Nicholls and Masters led in Heat 15, but Harris forced a way under Masters at the beginning of the final lap in forceful fashion. The 4-2 left Oxford with a 10-point victory and was the largest margin between the two teams all night.
Nicholls dropped points to Basso and Harris but produced fantastic rides in the big races of Heats 13 and 15 and finished as Cheetahs’ top-scorer on 12+1. He came out on top 2-to-1 in his clashes with old rival Harris.
Masters (10+1) and Kerr (9) completed good showings for Oxford’s heat-leader trio, while Heeps (6+1) shrugged off a shoulder injury picked up at Glasgow last Friday. Jenkins (6) produced superb rides in his closing couple of outings and spiked a couple of Glasgow’s four big guns. Boughen (4+1), another to pick up a knock at Glasgow, won Heat 2 by a street, while Atkins (3+1) improved as the night progressed and scored important points in both Heats 12 and 14.
Oxford skipper Scott Nicholls said: “We wanted as many points as we could get tonight, to take up to Glasgow when we go up there. Having been just two points up at the interval stage with just a few races to go, a 10-point win is a very impressive margin.
“Glasgow threw everything at us in the closing stages, including putting a tactical substitute in Heat 14. They tried to put pressure on us, but we’ve taken both the two points tonight and left ourselves in with a good shout for the aggregate bonus point.
“We were against us tonight against what is now a very strong Glasgow side. But when you’re on your home soil, and you can hear your fans, it’s always a big incentive to pull it out for them.
“The pressure was on me and Sam in Heats 13 and 15. We took a 5-1 in one and almost did the same in the other.
“Tom Brennan was riding at No 5 for Glasgow not long ago, but it was a brilliant ride from both Jordan and Henry to pass him in Heat 14 and win the meeting for us. Everyone dug deep and put in 100% and that’s all we can ask.
“We want to be in the final, and we’ll take it a meeting at a time and do what we need to do. The next step is at home again, to Redcar next Wednesday. With the continued support of our brilliant fans, I firmly believe we can take another victory.”
Cheetahs race Redcar home and away next week – at Oxford Stadium on Wednesday (September 20) and the ECCO Arena on Friday (September 22).
Meanwhile, in Group A, Poole needed a Superheat to defeat Scunthorpe, after the meeting ended at Wimborne Road all square at 45-45. Pirates, who topped the table and chose Scorpions as one of their play-off group opponents, are likely to need a stellar performance at Scunthorpe a week on Friday, if they are to avoid the ignominy of being eliminated by one of the two teams they hand-picked to give them the easiest route to the final.
Monarch Oxford Cheetahs 50: Sam Masters 10+1, Cameron Heeps 6+1, Lewis Kerr 9, Jordan Jenkins 6, Scott Nicholls 12+1, Ashton Boughen 4+1, Henry Atkins 3+1.
Glasgow Tigers 40: Chris Harris 14, Claus Vissing R/R, Benjamin Basso 10, Tom Brennan 3, Vadim Tarasenko 9, Lee Complin 3, Jack Smith 1+1.
PHOTO: Sam Masters and Scott Nicholls on their way to a 5-1 in the massively important Heat 13 (PIC: STEVE EDMUNDS)