Coventry and Belle Vue are hoping that their season-opening Challenge showdown lays the foundations for an official March fixture in years to come.

The Elite Shield will be at stake when the two clubs, who clashed in a memorable play-off final last September, meet once again ahead of the Bees commencing their title defence.

Belle Vue managed a crumb of consolation after losing out on the big prize when they overcame East-bourne to lift the Knockout Cup, and the meetings to launch 2006 are seen as speedway's equivalent of football's Charity Shield.

The sport did run an official contest on that basis many years ago, known as the Premiership. Coventry, in fact, won the competition's final match at Cradley Heath in 1988, but the Heathens were awarded the title after the Bees were unable to stage a home fixture.

Eighteen years on, Coventry will race the first leg at Kirkmanshulme Lane, scene of their 2005 title triumph, on March 13 before welcoming Belle Vue to Brandon on March 17.

Belle Vue co-promoter Ian Thomas said: "This is a competition which could grow with time and matches between the previous season's top two teams should give the new campaign a flying start. We have suggested to the BSPA that it becomes an official fixture again."

His Bees counterpart Colin Pratt agreed. "It's appropriate that the League Champions face the Cup winners, and I'm sure the fans will enjoy some great racing," he said.

The start of the new season will mark the return to action of Coventry's Australian youngster Rory Schlein, whose 2005 campaign came to a premature end with a serious back injury sustained at Brandon in late May.

Schlein, who ironically signed for the Bees after successfully doubling-up for Belle Vue the previous year, has made a full recovery and finished an encouraging third in the recent Australian Championships.

He said: "The best news since my recovery was to be included in the team and given another opportunity by the management who have shown their belief in me.

"I know there are doubt-ers, but I have the support of many who believe I will be stronger and fitter than I was prior to last season - and I have the belief in myself to come through this. I have heavily invested in equipment, committed to local sponsors in Coventry and my own belief in what I can achieve in the sport."

The Bees' squad was completed before Christmas, and Wolverhampton boss Chris Van Straaten has now put the finishing touches to the Monmore line-up - while also launching his new venture in the Premier League at Redcar.

Having confirmed Ben Wilson and William Lawson as doubling-up reserves to finalise the one-to-seven, Van Straaten has agreed terms with Lee Smethills to act as No 8 squad rider.

Unusually, this deal was announced before Smethills was declared in a Premier League team - which is required by the rules - but the smart money is on Smethills lining up for Berwick, who have delayed confirmation of their League participation due to financial uncertainty.