Speedway: Birks hoping to be Stoke's silver dream racer
A PLETHORA of top-class riders will line-up at Loomer Road on Sunday (3pm) for the National League's first major championship of the season.
Stoke number one Ashley Birks will lead the hosts' National League Fours challenge, and they will be one of the favourites to land the title.
But defending champions Dudley remain confident, despite the absence of Adam Roynon, arguably the top rider in the National League at the moment.
Birks, who will line-up alongside Richie Worrall, Tony Atkin and Ben Reade on Sunday, said: "I came here to help Stoke win silverware, and this is a big opportunity for us to do just that.
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"We have the riders to go all the way, and if we all hit form on the day we could do it."
But while he is aware of the class riders in the field, Birks believes it is important the Easy Rider Potters concentrate on their own ambitions rather than worry about the opposition.
He explained: "We will have to go about our business professionally and thoroughly. Our focus has to be on our own performances, otherwise it will be much tougher."
Stoke are grouped with Dudley, Rye House and Isle of Wight in Group A, while King's Lynn, Buxton, Scunthorpe and Mildenhall face off in Group B.
Both Roynon and Scunthorpe's Gary Irving will be riding for Workington in their Premier League meeting at Glasgow on Sunday, so miss the Stoke spectacular.
But Ashley Morris, Roynon's Dudley team-mate who won the crucial final heat last year to ensure the Heathens' victory, is optimistic they can be a threat again.
"Not having Adam in the side is an obvious blow, but we still have the riders who can make things happen," he said.
"I like the Stoke track, while Tom Perry is having a really good season. We just have to go there and believe in ourselves."
Dudley have brought in the fast-starting James White-Williams in place of Roynon, while Rye House have drafted in British under-19s champion Jason Garrity in place of the injured David Mason and also include Stoke old boy James Sarjeant.
Mildenhall, meanwhile, will also be pushing for honours despite losing the services of Joe Jacobs, who has a broken wrist.
Buxton include three riders with Stoke connections – Dean Felton, Luke Priest and Adam McKinna – plus Richie Worrall's twin brother, Steve, and the in-form Tom Young.
The top two finishers in each group will progress to the final.
Stoke and Dudley look favourites to qualify from Group A, while Mildenhall, Scunthorpe and King's Lynn are likely to be vying for the two final slots in Group B.
Having finished joint runners-up to Dudley last year, Stoke team manager Malcolm Vasey had a warning for his team.
He said: "There are some good sides in the meeting on Sunday and we can take nothing for granted.
"I remember the disappointment of missing out on victory last season and that is not a taste I want to repeat."
HOW THEY LINE-UP
Rye House: Jason Garrity, Ben Morley, James Sarjeant, Luke Chessell.
Isle of Wight: Kyle Hughes, Ben Hopwood, Gary Cottham, Paul Starke.
Stoke: Ashley Birks, Richie Worrall, Tony Atkin, Ben Reade.
Dudley: Tom Perry, James White-Williams, Ashley Morris, Byron Bekker.
King's Lynn: Brendan Johnson, Lewis Kerr, Adam Lowe, James Cockle.
Mildenhall: Lewis Blackbird, Stefan Nielsen, Cameron Heeps, Daniel Halsey.
Buxton: Robert Branford, Adam McKinna, Luke Priest, Dean Felton.
Scunthorpe: Steve Worrall, Tommy Fenwick, Tom Young, Max Clegg.