A PAIR of tight tussles are expected when Gwent’s Premiership quartet start their season by battling for the right to represent the region in the British and Irish Cup, writes Chris Kirwan.
Cross Keys host Ebbw Vale and Newport head to Bedwas this afternoon (kick-offs 2.30pm) in semi-finals with the victors meeting next weekend for the place in the cross-border competition.
The club that goes on to represent the Newport Gwent Dragons area will take on Cornish Pirates, Bedford and Doncaster while the other trio will have gaping holes in their fixture list.
Keys have played in the tournament for the last three years and were runners-up to Munster A in 2012 but they face a stern test against the Steelmen, who would love to enjoy BIC action after four seasons in the second tier.
They return to the Principality Premiership on September 13 when they host Llandovery and would dearly love to do so with a pair of derby wins under their belt.
Keys are without influential captain and centre Leon Andrews with Phil Williams wearing 12 in his absence.
They field a settled side with no debutants in their starting XV, unsurprising given that they finished second to Pontypridd in both the Premiership and Swalec Cup last season.
Ebbw Vale also head into the new campaign with those that have provided plenty of success in recent years and they will be looking for their usual suspects to drive them forward, namely captain Damien Hudd, flanker Ronny Kynes and their impressive front row of Ross Jones, Mathew Williams and Robert Sevenoaks.
Newport emerged with a hard-fought 17-10 victory when they made the short trip to Bedwas in the league last season and it could be another nailbiter at Bridge Field this afternoon.
The Black and Ambers give starts to six debutants in wing Jon Morris (Newbridge), Nathan Edwards (Bridgend), loosehead Liam Jenkins (Bedlinog), hooker Will Evans (Moseley) and back row forward Sam Feehan (Cardiff), along with Dragons academy scrum-half Owen Davies.
A front row crisis has been averted by promising 19-year-old Dragons tighthead Alex Jeffries overcoming a bump to start while hooker Evan Whitson joins James Greenfield in proving propping cover on the bench.
Ollie Griffiths, 19, captains the Black and Ambers for the first time from openside and will be up against a bruising Bedwas pack that is skipper by abrasive back row forward Simon Grainger.
Aaron Pinches and Paul Davies start in the Bridge Field side’s midfield along with fellow debutants Joe Smith, Alun Rees, Josh Walker and Alwyn Lee at scrum-half, hooker, lock and blindside respectively.
Cross Keys: J Cordy-Redden, N Williams, A James, P Williams, N Trowbridge, D Jones, R Dyer, R Cornock, D Hughes, A Lott, D Hodge, T Lampard, R Tucker, S Matthews, A Powell (captain). Replacements: J Howard, L Garrett, C Gould, C Townsend, P Uhi, E Jones, R James, S Andrews
Ebbw Vale: D Haymond, W Cunliffe, T Hiscock, J Howells, O Williams, I Smerdon, D Jones, R Jones, M Williams, R Sevenoaks, D Hudd (captain), A Sweet, A Harris, R Kynes, C Regan. Replacements: J Lavender, J Franchi, G Robinson, S Jackson, S Gibson, E Davies, C Thomas, L Reece.
Bedwas: H Thompson, R Budina, A Pinches, P Davies, M John, R Powell, J Smith, B Toms, A Rees, M Petit, P Rees, J Walker, A Lee, S Grainger (captain), D Crimmins. Replacements: D Preece, R Wilkes, I Jenkins, J Richards, J Sawyer, T Rowlands, J Maynard, S Taylor.
Newport: G O’Driscoll, J Morris, N Edwards, D Robinson, O Broad, M O’Brien, O Davies, L Jenkins, W Evans, A Jeffries, Adam Brown, A Frampton, S Feehan, O Griffiths (captain) B Lampitt. Replacements: Andrew Brown, J Greenfield, E Whitson, D Partridge, S Cross, A Quick, J Murphy, C Rees.