THE Buildbase Bees overcame the latest hurdle in their defence of the Craven Shield in fine style as they established a first-leg lead at Purfleet.
Bees' performances at Lakeside so far this season did not give rise to a great deal of confidence, but things were very different on this occasion.
The Hammers have undoubtedly struggled to cover their injuries in the closing stages of the campaign, and the Bees have finally managed to put what amounts to their first-choice team on track - showing once again how important meeting the right team at the right time can be.
When the sides met in the Elite League at the end of June, Bees were suffering major injury problems of their own, whilst the hastily re-arranged 'B' fixture a month later also came at a bad time in terms of form and team planning.
But on this occasion, they did far more than contain and limit damage, preventing the Hammers from ever taking the lead on their home circuit - and although they are fully aware that Lakeside can hit back next Friday, Bees have undoubtedly taken the upper hand in the Final.
Unfortunately, Olly Allen's involvement effectively lasted only a few seconds, as after making a good start with Hans Andersen in Heat 1, he spun and fell on the first bend, suffering a groin injury which left him in severe discomfort.
The British rider tried to go again in Heat 5 but managed just a lap before retiring, and his remaining two rides were covered by reserves - which, happily, was an area in which Bees had plenty of strength.
Andersen, meanwhile, took control of the re-run of Heat 1, pulling clear in the closing stages after initially being reeled in by Andreas Jonsson, and then Bees had the first signs that they would dominate in the lower order when they gained a most welcome 5-1 in Heat 2.
Ben Barker, who has gone well at Purfleet this year, set himself up for a magnificent individual display with an emphatic win, and he was so far in front that he spent most of the time looking back to watch Filip Sitera comfortably holding off Ricky Kling for second place.
Kling continued to struggle after his point-less score at Poole on Monday, and the injury absence of Hammers' No.8 Kauko Nieminen continued to be a blow for the home side as play-off signing Krzysztof Jablonski was not riding, and fairly-late replacement Chris Mills failed to trouble the scorers.
Bees' 5-1 was, however, immediately cancelled out in Heat 3 when Chris Harris was sandwiched from gate 2 going into the first bend and Billy Janniro's attempts to get around Jonas Davidsson were rebuffed by the Swede.
But the pattern of the meeting was that whenever the Hammers levelled the scores, Bees would hit back straight away, and it happened in Heat 4 with Barker riding a blinder from gate 2 to get ahead of the field, and away from a tough second bend with Tomasz Jedrzejak elbowing Simon Stead aside which briefly put Mills into third place, until Stead came back through for third at the end of the first lap.
Andersen dominated Heat 5 to maintain the two-point lead, but this was again pegged back in Heat 6 as Jonsson successfully navigated the traffic on the first turn, and Leigh Lanham made an outside pass on Sitera for third place on lap three.
Back, though, came the Bees with Harris getting a good exit from turn four to switch inside Jedrzejak going into the second lap, and Janniro racing hard on the last lap to surprise Kling on the outside and snatch third place on the line.
Lanham made a fast start to end Barker's unbeaten record in Heat 8, but the Hammers' chances of taking points back ended at the start of the race with Kling failing to leave the line - and Bees were more than happy to take another 3-3 in Heat 9 against the strong Jonsson/Davidsson combination, even though Barker surprisingly led Jonsson for the first lap before the Swede pulled off a sensational pass on the outside, all on one wheel.
Jonsson won Heat 10 as well, passing Harris on the second lap, and third place for Lanham in a good battle with Janniro meant the scores were back level with five heats to go.
The final third of the meeting, though, saw the Bees very much maintain their focus as they deservedly took the lead from the first leg.
First, Andersen produced a clever ride on the first two bends of Heat 11 to switch back inside Jedrzejak who was attempting to take him wide, and Barker was again on hand to take third place with Kling's challenge eventually expiring.
Then Harris used the outside on turn two to pass Davidsson for the lead in Heat 12, and Sitera again did his job with third place to make it 38-34 in Bees' favour.
The one setback came in Heat 13, and it was set up by more brilliance from Jonsson who out-trapped Andersen from gate 2 and successfully clamped the Coventry No.1 to create space for Jedrzejak to make his move from the outside, and there was no way back from there for the Bees pairing.
But that did not give rise to a late surge from the Hammers, Barker seeing to that with another brilliant effort in Heat 14 to hold off every challenge of Davidsson, whose outside run on the last bend was blocked just in time - and another third place from Janniro, passing Kling into turn three, put the Bees back ahead.
Andersen again found himself on gate 1 against Jonsson in Heat 15, but he was determined to avoid a repeat of Heat 13, and this time he won the race to the first bend and then showed fine track craft to deny the obvious speed of his opponent - particularly impressive was he way he second-guessed Jonsson to cover the outside run early on the third lap.
Third place for Harris, also working hard to hold Jedrzejak at bay, wrapped up a thoroughly impressive night's work for the Bees, who are now on the brink of a sixth major item of silverware in four years.
But they will also be aware that Lakeside have a further week to re-group after what has been a trying ten days for them, and fully refreshed the Hammers will still provide a real threat at Brandon in the second leg - one that the Buildbase Bees need to be well and truly ready for.
LAKESIDE HAMMERS 43 Andreas Jonsson 2 3 3 3 2* 2 = 15+1 Leigh Lanham 1* 2 1 3 1 = 8+1 Adam Shields Rider Replacement Jonas Davidsson 2* 1* 0 2 2 = 7+2 Tomasz Jedrzejak 3 2 2 2 3 0 = 12 Ricky Kling 1 0 R R 0 = 1 Chris Mills 0 0 0 = 0
BUILDBASE BEES 47 Hans Andersen 3 3 3 1 3 = 13 Olly Allen X R = 0 Chris Harris 0 3 2 3 1 = 9 Billy Janniro 1 1 0 1 = 3 Simon Stead 1 2 1* 0 = 4+1 Filip Sitera 2* 0 1* 1 = 4+2 Ben Barker 3 3 2 2 1 3 = 14