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Heathens 44 Stoke 43
10:56pm Tuesday 9th October 2012 in Local Sport
TOM Perry won a thrilling final heat to ensure Dudley Heathens take the smallest of leads into the National League semi-final second leg.
On a night of incredible frustration for the hosts, Perry at least provided a sweet finish by inflicting the only defeat of the night on Stoke’s Ashley Birks.
The visitors kept the scores close in a meeting coloured by crashes and mechanical problems for the home side.
Both teams now face off again tomorrow night in the second leg at Loomer Road.
Perry’s superb win at the death was needed to preserve the Heathens unbeaten home record and in a tie where the scoring is tight, its significance could prove huge in 24 hours time.
Moments earlier the packed crowd had fallen silent as the Potters jumped into the lead for the first time when Dan Greenwood and Darryl Ritchings both failed to finish heat 14 – the second time the hosts had been blanked 5-0 following Joe Haines’ fall in heat 10.
Perry’s victory at least gives the Dudley side some cheer but at the halfway stage this tie is a lot closer than anyone would have predicted. Just weeks ago any notion of the Heathens not reaching the final would have seemed laughable but it is going to require a mammoth performance tomorrow to prevent their superb season ending in despair.
Stoke were hammered 58-35 at Monmore back in August but the intervening two months and particularly the last few weeks have not been kind to the Heathens.
Shorn of skipper Adam Roynon and Byron Bekker through injury, the hosts needed a solid performance but instead experienced a night where whatever could go wrong, did go wrong.
If the Heathens lose narrowly on aggregate, they will look back at events like heat where an almost certain 5-1 was snatched away by Ashley Morris breaking his chain, or the frankly bizarre heat 10 where Haines was their only starter and failed to make it round the opening lap.
That killed any momentum built in heat nine where Perry and Greenwood secured the hosts’ only 5-1 of the evening to open up a 30-23, a win which was greeted with a roar built largely of relief from the Heathens' supporters.
But the lead did not increase above four points from then on and after the disaster of heat 14, where Ritchings crashed out and Greenwood had a mechanical in the re-run, Stoke looked certain of taking a first leg lead before Perry’s late heroics.
Up till then Birks had looked unstoppable, setting his stall out from heat one when he raced away from Haines and Ritchings.
In James Cockle, Ben Reade and Lee Geary he found enough support to frustrate the hosts, for whom four replacement rides for Bekker yielding just two points.
Dudley 44: Tom Perry 14, Ashley Morris 11, Darryl Ritchings 10+2, Joe Haines 6+1, Dan Greenwood 2+1, James White Williams 1, Byron Bekker R/R
Stoke 43: Ashley Birks 14, James Cockle 9, Ben Reade 7+3, Lee Geary 7+2, Tony Atkin 5, Liam Carr 1, Liam Rumsey 0