Somerset Rebels finish 2016 season in style

Rohan Tungate gets given the bumps after his heat ride that secured teh title.

Rohan Tungate gets given the bumps after his heat ride that secured teh title. - Credit: Archant

A huge crowd gathered at the Oaktree Arena on Thursday to witness the ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels top off their 2016 in style, writes Dave Thompson.

Already having taken this season’s, Premier League Pairs, League Shield, and League Cup, the Rebels, fittingly, captured the Premier League Championship in front of their own fans, in a hard fought battle with the Sheffield Tigers.

The ground work for this particular victory was done over a long season, in which they confounded the early season expert opinion, and that expressed on various social media outlets, that this was a poor Somerset side. Much to the dismay of the pundits Somerset lost only four Premier League matches all season, and went unbeaten in the league, home and away, until August 11, when, ironically, it was Thursday’s visitors, Sheffield, who took the Rebels unbeaten record away at Owlerton.

The hard yards in this Premier League Play Off Grand Final were done in the first leg on Wednesday, when the Rebels emerged from the Yorkshire side’s home track holding a two point lead. After that victory, the general consensus of opinion, both from the experts, and social media sites, was that the Rebels were virtually home and dry, and that they would steamroller their way to the title. However, Garry May and his ‘Magnificent Seven’ were taking nothing for granted, as their opponents had not only come good at the right time and qualified for the Final, but in doing so had dismissed two of the most fancied sides, in Newcastle and Glasgow, who many saw as not only potential finalist, but also as possible title winners themselves. With that record under their belts, Sheffield could prove difficult opponents, who were quite likely to give Somerset a run for their money, despite the previous night’s result, and so it proved.

Both sides were forced to run a couple of guest, due to ongoing injuries to regular team members. Sheffield carded Ricky Wells and Stuart Robson, in place of Jason Garrity and Dimitri Berge, whilst they covered the injured Simon Stead by rider replacement. The Rebels tracked Rob Branford and James Shanes for Bradley Wilson-Dean and Zach Wajtknecht.

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The first race on the night showed that underestimating the Tigers would be a mistake, as they immediately wiped out their deficit, and put the tie on an even footing, by taking a 2-4 advantage in Heat 1. Ricky Wells came to the tapes with Arthur Sissis taking the riders replacement ride. As the tapes rose it was the former AMA American Champion who got the best start, and was in front before the turn, with Sissis following him round. Rohan Tungate took up second with sweeping move off the second turn, but Wells was in the wind and try as he might, Tungate couldn’t get on terms. Jake Allen missed the gate, and was stuck at the back for the whole race, looking down on power.

Heat 2 saw the home side restore the slender overall lead, with a 4-2 of their own, but not before the race was called back, with Arthur Sissis being warned to stay still at the tapes. In the restart Rob Branford hit the gate, leading away with Sissis almost on terms, but it was Branford who hit the front at the turn, before running Sissis wide into the second bend. James Shanes couldn’t take advantage, and was then passed by Nathan Greaves down the back straight. With Branford heading the affair, Shanes dug in, and chased down Greaves, and over the final two laps he was all over the Sheffield man. As they approached the final turn, Shanes conjured up a powerful run up Greaves inside, and the pair flashed across the line locked together. It was a tight finish, but one in which Shanes determination had prevailed as he stole away third place on the line.

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Heat 3 was shared, with the Tigers providing the winner. Stuart Robson just nicked the lead on the first turn, with Paul Starke and Charles Wright virtually upsides, but as they hit the back straight, Starke and Wright went for the same piece of track, with Wright’s outside run being blocked by his team mate. It was enough to give Robson the breathing space he needed to pull out a lead he wasn’t to lose. Whilst Starke set off after him, Robson had too much in hand, and despite a spirited chase, Starke was never getting near.

The next heat went to the Rebels, with another 4-2. Josh Grajczonek and Kyle Howarth contested the early running, before Grajczonek took the advantage with a storming pass around the outside of the opening turns. James Shanes disputed the run to the turn with Nathan Greaves, taking third spot as he came over the top to demote Greaves to the rear. Grajczonek pulled out a small lead on the initial circuit, but Howarth stuck doggedly to his tail, and it wasn’t until the penultimate lap that Grajczonek shook him off to pull out a comfortable lead. Shanes easily held third place, with Greaves giving up the ghost as he came off the final turn of the race, and returned to the pits without taking the flag.

Josh Bates, who had been a hero for the Rebels fans for his part in the League Cup victory, when riding as a Somerset guest, turned villain for his own side as he ploughed through the tapes in Heat 5, and was excluded. Rather than go from 15 metres, his place in the line up was taken by Arthur Sissis. Ricky Wells made it two rides and two wins, after making a sweet outside pass on the early leader, Charles Wright, as they ran the back straight. Once in the van, he took no prisoners, leading all the way to the flag. Behind the pair, Paul Starke was battling with Sissis, and the pair passed and repassed each other, until Starke got the upper hand at the end of the second lap. Sissis kept up the pressure, until he made a mistake that almost saw him on the floor, leaving Starke clear in third to share the points.

From the Rebels point of view, despite holding a four point aggregate lead, it was proving difficult to get a grip on the match, as the Tigers made them fight all the way. In Heat 6 they again managed an advantage, but once more it was not the maximum they were looking for, which would give them a bit of leeway. As the tapes rose, the winner was put beyond doubt, as Rohan Tungate made a lightning start, which saw him hit the front, clamp Kyle Howarth to the kerb and then pull away to a bloodless win. Jake Allen took immediate advantage to throw in his challenge to Howarth, but the Ashton-under-Lyne born man was in no mood to relinquish his second spot. Allen was all over him, and several times got up Howarth’s inside, but could not make the moves stick. Eventually Howarth worked a small advantage, which he held to the flag, but he knew he couldn’t make a mistake, as Allen would have immediately pounced.

The next two heats only went to demonstrate how difficult the Rebels were finding it to establish a winning advantage, as the Tigers again cut the deficit, with a shared heat and a heat advantage. Heat 7 was shared, but it may have been so much better for the Rebels. Josh Grajczonek made a rocket start to lead up, with Rob Branford sitting on a 5-1 in second spot. As they hit the turn, Branford was swamped, as he tried to move Josh Bates wide, only to get pushed wide himself by Stuart Robson, before finding himself shuttled to the back. Those two turns were the race in a nutshell, as Grajczonek powered away to win in a canter, with the Tigers filling the places.

It was all change for Sheffield in Heat 8, as Kyle Howarth took the rider replacement, with Arthur Sissis being the reserve switch. The pair made a slick gate, and led the first lap on a maximum advantage, with Jake Allen pressing Sissis. As they entered the next lap, Allen made a neat inside pass on his fellow countryman, to move in pursuit of Howarth, but with Tigers man gone for all money, chasing him down wasn’t an option. Instead Allen concentrated on helping his team mate, James Shanes, and started to slow up Sissis, as Shanes closed over the next lap. With Shanes now on the tail of Sissis, it looked as though the tactic had worked, until Shanes almost ran up the back of the former Moto 3 star, as Allen just slowed it a fraction too much running into the first turn for the last time. It was enough to give Sissis some room to manoeuvre, and he used it well to retain his place, and give the visitors a heat advantage, which again pegged the Rebels back to just 4pts on aggregate.

There had been some degree of nervousness in the Rebel camp, but Garry May and Josh Grajczonek pulled the team together, and spread the message of calm, and told the team to treat the encounter just like any other match, and it seemed to do the trick, as after Heat 8, Somerset started to stretch their legs.

Firstly Heat 9 restored the 6pt overall lead, as the home side took a 4-2 advantage, which came courtesy of Charles Wright and Paul Starke. Wright flew off the tapes, with Howarth and Starke close by, but he ran too hot into the turn, gifting Howarth the lead. Undeterred, Wright charged down the back straight, and steamed underneath Howarth at the third turn to head the race. Starke was right there, and pressed Howarth for second, but couldn’t find a way by. He buzzed around Howarth’s back wheel for the whole race, looking for gap or a mistake, but his opponent rode a superb and clever four laps to shut him out, and limit the damage.

The major breakthrough for the Rebels came in the next heat, when Rohan Tungate and Jake Allen combined to post the maximum advantage the home side had been looking for. Allen said after the meeting that he had struggled all night with an engine which, ironically after looking down on power in his earlier races, was actually delivering too much power for the conditions. He said that he had tried to calm it down with no joy, so for his final race, he decided to make some drastic changes, and it worked. Even after that he was slowly away, but with his partner making a jet propelled start, both Josh Bates and Stuart Robson left a wide open door on the opening turns, and Allen needed no second invitation to step through. Once in second he settled in and stroked it home for the maximum, with some comfort, despite some late pressure from Bates.

That ‘Full House’ was just what the team needed to put some daylight between themselves, and the visitors, giving them a 10pt cushion overall. As we have seen in the past the Rebels always seem to come on strong in the latter part of the matches, especially when they’ve had to endure some early pressure, and this occasion proved to be no different.

They added another 2pts to the advantage in the next heat, as Josh Grajczonek had to overcome two restarts before posting another win. In the original start, Ricky Wells was too previous at the tapes, and Dave Watters called it back, just as the Rebels had taken up a 5-1 position, despite Wells massive jump. The riders than came back to the tapes, and as they prepared to start again, the tapes rose without the green light coming on. Finally the race got underway at the third time of asking, and saw a flashing start by Grajczonek, with Rob Branford and Ricky Wells close up. Wells pushed Grajczonek out wide, and as a consequence blocked Branford’s run in the process. Grajczonek took it all in his stride, and steamed back to the front down the back straight, whilst Branford recovered to pass Arthur Sissis for third. With Grajczonek gone, Branford closed up on Wells, but not close enough to get in a blow, then with the race seemingly settled, Wells caught a huge lift off the final turn of the second lap, and his machine reared high into the air. He fought it all the way down the straight, and worked the proverbial miracle to retain his seat. He was fortunate not to collect Branford in the process. For his part, Branford squeezed through and took up the running for second, but once back in control, Wells finally settled and re-established his second place as they hit the final lap.

With four heats left to run the Tigers, despite being 12pts down on aggregate, could still win the title with four heat advantages, three of which would need to be maximums. With their fighting spirit shown in their Play Off exploits so far, no one was writing them off until it was mathematically impossible for the title to travel to Yorkshire. The first of those heat advantages came when they recorded a 4-2 in Heat 12, when Stuart Robson got a flying start to lead up. Charles Wright made up early lost ground to throw in a challenge late in the race. He was right on Robson, moving inside him off the second bend of the final lap. Robson lifted slightly, and Wright was upsides in a flash, but Sunderland born rider called on all his vast experience, and rode a superb line to run Wright out of the win. Meanwhile Arthurs Sissis just got the better of a pressing and charging James Shanes to hold on for the heat advantage.

It would now take three maximum advantages for the Tigers to lift the title, and one came in the very next heat, but unfortunately for the Yorkshire outfit, it was posted by the Rebels. When tapes lifted on Heat 13, Sheffield gave their fans a moment of hope as Ricky Wells and Kyle Howarth blazed to the first turn holding the maximum advantage, but their joy was short lived as Rohan Tungate cruised into the lead down the back straight. No sooner had he hit the front, Howarth came right back at him inside the third turn, to move back to the front. Tungate kept it wound on, and powered back to the head of affairs as they ran to the first bend on Lap 2. Meanwhile Grajczonek was blocked out at the back, and the race looked all over a shared heat, until the Rebels skipper pulled off a title winning move, as he cut through a minuscule gap between the Tigers duo whilst negotiating the third bend of the second lap. As Grajczonek ploughed through the gap, the cheers from the fans started to build to a crescendo, which reached its peak when the pair flashed across the line, with the crowd now realising that the Premier League Title would now reside in Somerset for only the second time in the club’s history. The result was followed by mad scenes of celebration, with both Grajczonek and Garry May receiving the bumps from the rest of the team and mechanics.

Once the scene had calmed down, the final two races could take place, and the Rebels piled on the coals, with another ‘Full House’ in Heat 14. Paul Starke and Rob Branford combine in a rocket start to lead every inch of the way and reinforce the Rebels advantage. Josh Bates closed up on Branford in the closing stages, but his late run came to nothing as Branford followed his partner home for all the points.

For the nominated heat, Garry May called on Paul Starke and Rohan Tungate to represent the Rebels, with Ricky Wells and Stuart Robson taking the Tigers places. It was the visiting pair who made the best start, leading up on a 5-1, but a consolation maximum advantage was denied, when Paul Starke came with a barrelling run wide, to pass first Robson and then Wells with a sustained run from the second bend back to the home straight. Once in front he tied up the win, and Tungate made sure of a Rebels heat advantage when he powered into third, passing Robson at the close of Lap 2. He then set off after Wells, and on the final lap, he started to close quickly, by the penultimate turn he was almost there, and came with a wet sail around the final two turns, charging down the home straight he streaked across the line side-by-side with Wells, but it was the American who held on by a whisker.

For the record, the final reckoning was 54-36 win in ‘Cases’ Somerset Rebels favour, giving them the 2016 Premier League Championship with an aggregate 100-80 win over the two legs. It was a magnificent achievement from a team who many wrote off at the beginning of the season, and a thoroughly deserved one, having topped the table in the regular season. Congratulations should also go to Sheffield, for not only their fighting performance in the final, but also for winning through against some of the best, when many had also written them off. They were a credit to the club, and their fans should be rightly proud of them and the performances they have produced in the Play Offs, and here in the Final.

It would be churlish to single out any rider and their scores on an occasion like this, as the whole team rode their hearts out, and contributed fully to the performance, except to say that quite rightly, both Bradley Wilson-Dean, dressed in his kevlars, and Zach Wajtknecht were part of the celebrations, and received their medals along with the rest of the team. Bradley, who has been practicing and trying out his collarbone, caused some amusement when doing a celebratory wheelie down the back straight, overcooked it and fell out of the back door, fortunately without any further injury. Josh Grajczonek, who posted a paid maximum (11+1), was awarded the Somerset ‘Rider of the Night’ trophy, presented by meeting sponsor, Graham Mottram, who along with a group of friends known as ‘The First Bend Fiasco’ chose Grajczonek as much for his performance as the Rebels skipper throughout the season, as his showing on the night.

“This is unbelievable, I’m almost speechless, and those who know me well will tell you that doesn’t happen very often!” said a delighted Somerset promoter Debbie Hancock afterwards, “nobody rated this team at the start of the season, and the boys were determined to prove them wrong.”

“They have had a great team spirit throughout and fully deserved their title, especially after having topped the Premier League table at the end of the regular season, but in saying that it takes two teams to make a final and all credit to Sheffield for making it a great final, and I am sure that their time will come.”

“We’ve got a great team manager in Gazza (Garry May) and he knows how to get the best out of a rider as this season has proved once again.”

“So let the celebrations begin, I’m sure that they will last long into the night and then continue on Saturday evening when we hold our end of season dinner and presentation night”

Suffice to say that after the crowd had watched the on track celebrations and the obligatory firework display, the after meeting festivities went on for quite some time afterwards.

Meeting statistics

Somerset Rebels - 54 (100)

1 Rohan Tungate - 2, 3, 3, 3, 1 = 12

2 Jake Allen - 0, 1, 2, 2* = 5+1

3 Charles Wright - 1*, 2, 3, 2 = 8+1

4 Paul Starke - 2, 1*, 1, 3, 3 = 10+1

5 Josh Grajczonek - 3, 3, 3, 2* = 11+1

6 Robert Branford (Guest) - 3, 0, 1, 2* = 6+1

7 James Shanes (Guest) - 1, 1, 0, 0 = 2

Sheffield Tigers - 36 (80)

1 Ricky Wells (Guest) - 3, 3, 2, 1, 2 = 11

2 Dimitri Berge - Rider Replacement

3 Stuart Robson (Guest) - 3, 2, 0, 3, 0 = 8

4 Josh Bates - 0, XT, 1*, 1, 1 = 3+1

5 Kyle Howarth - 2, 2, 3, 2, 0 = 9

6 Arthur Sissis - 1, 2, 0, 1, 0, 1 = 5

7 Nathan Greaves - 0, R, 0, 0, 0 = 0

SCB Referee: Dave Watters

Heat Details

Heat 01: Wells, Tungate, Sissis, Allen (2-4) (2-4) (AGG 48-48) 57.22

Heat 02: (Re-Run) Branford, Sissis, Shanes, Greaves (4-2) (6-6) (AGG 52-50) 58.16

Heat 03: Robson, Starke, Wright, Bates (3-3) (9-9) (AGG 55-53) 57.47

Heat 04: Grajczonek, Howarth, Shanes, Greaves (Retired) (4-2) (13-11) (AGG 59-55) 56.81

Heat 05: (Re-Run) Wells, Wright, Starke, Sissis (for Bates – XT) (3-3) (16-14) (AGG 62-58) 57.53

Heat 06: Tungate, Howarth, Allen, Greaves (4-2) 20-16 (AGG 66-60) 57.31

Heat 07: Grajczonek, Howarth, Bates, Branford (3-3) (23-19) (AGG 69-63) 57.50

Heat 08: Howarth, Allen, Sissis, Shanes (2-4) (25-23) (AGG 71-67) 58.75

Heat 09: Wright, Howarth, Starke, Greaves (4-2) (29-25) (AGG 75-69) 58.31

Heat 10: Tungate, Allen, Bates, Robson (5-1) (34-26) (AGG 80-70) 58.31

Heat 11: (Re-Runx2) Grajczonek, Wells, Branford, Sissis (4-2) (38-28) (AGG 84-72) 58.18

Heat 12: Robson, Wright, Sissis, Shanes (2-4) (40-32) (AGG 86-76) 58.28

Heat 13: Tungate, Grajczonek, Wells, Howarth (5-1) (45-33) (AGG 91-77) 58.15

Heat 14: Starke, Branford, Bates, Greaves (5-1) (50-34) (AGG 96-78) 59.41

Heat 15: Starke, Wells, Tungate, Robson (4-2) (54-36) (AGG 100-80) 59.22

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