The 2006 Speedway World Cup got off to a thrilling start with a three-way battle for honours in Poland last night.
Great Britain, Australia and the hosts staged a dramatic last-race shoot-out for victory with only one point separating the three nations.
But the Australians had the World Champion-elect Jason Crump in the crucial heat 25, and he duly secured a 15-point maximum with victory to condemn the other two nations to the race-off at Reading on Thursday while taking his team direct to Saturday's final.
For much of the meeting, the automatic qualification place for the final looked to be between Great Britain and Australia, but Poland came back into contention late in the proceedings.
The Australians were held up when Todd Wilt-shire crashed out of heat 21 after a lengthy delay to fix the starting tapes, and then Tomasz Gollob pulled off a spectacular outside passing move to give the Poles maximum return from their deployment of a double-points joker.
Jarek Hampel kept them moving by passing Coven-try's Chris Harris in the next race, and Britain's hopes were further hit when Scott Nicholls finished third in the penultimate heat.
Australia's Leigh Adams posted his fourth successive win in that heat 24, which paved the way for Crump to fend off Mark Loram and Piotr Protasiewicz in the decider.
Britain, however, will be confident of coming through the Race-Off on Thursday with home advantage over the Poles on this occasion.
And all of their team appear to be in good shape, with each of the five riders scoring nine or ten points.
Skipper Nicholls said: "We half-expected to find ourselves in the race-off and we will be strong on home soil. I was really proud of everyone in the team, they all did their jobs and we are still in there fighting."
The second event of the tournament takes place at Malilla in Sweden tomorrow, where once again the winners qualify for the final at Smallmead.
And it signals the return to top-level World competition for Wolverhampton legend Sam Ermolenko, now in semi-retirement but still as keen as ever to make an impression.
Since leaving Peterborough at the end of last season, Ermolenko has taken over a role as sporting director at Elite League newcomers Reading.
Occasional meetings in Sweden have been the limit of his on-track participation this season save for the World Cup qualifier which put America back into this stage of the competition after a number of years away.
The Stars and Stripes, also including Billy Hamill and Greg Hancock, face Denmark, Sweden and an injury hit Czech Republic, still reeling from Ales Dryml's serious crash at Oxford last week.
Denmark are tfavourites, with Sweden having a strong Wolverhampton representation with current skipper Peter Karlsson, Fredrik Lindgren and club asset Mikael Max.