LEADERS Clydesdale begin a crucial phase in their bid to win the Western Union for the first time since its re-formation four years ago when they entertain Ferguslie this afternoon.

The Titwood side will be without influential player-coach Con de Lange who is nursing a calf strain ahead of the World T20 Qualifier which starts on Thursday.

De Lange and fellow Scotland star Richie Berrington will then both be absent for the remainder of July and how Clydesdale cope without them will have a major bearing on the outcome of the title race.

De Lange's absence today is particularly galling for the player himself who, having spent five memorable seasons as Ferguslie's professional, would love to have faced his old side.

However, the Clydesdale player-coach is confident his new team can rise to the challenge.

"I've been ruled out for a week with a slight calf strain which is disappointing for me but we have the players who can get the job done," said the 34 year-old spinner and top order batsman.

"It's always a big game against Ferguslie and a special one for me and Saturday will be no different.

"We have been working on a way of playing the game this season and things are going quite well but we have to keep working hard.

"I know some people are already talking about the title but we simply can't think like that. There is a long, long way to go and we simply have to take each match as it comes."

With today heralding the beginning of the second half of the season there is indeed a long way to go and Clydesdale could hardly have a tougher start than against a Ferguslie side who have manoeuvred their way into contention since losing to today's opponents on the opening day.

That was their first match back in the top flight and the Meikleriggs men have since adjusted to their new surroundings, claiming some notable scalps on the way including those of Dumfries and Uddingston, the 2012 and 2013 champions.

Skipper Gregor Preston-Jones insists the visit to Titwood holds no fears, saying: "Of course we are capable of beating them on our day.

"We have been playing some good cricket over the last few weeks and shall be looking to use that momentum on Saturday to try and turn Clydesdale over.

"They have many good players but I'm not worrying about who is playing and who isn't as it is more important to concentrate on the things you can control.

"We will try to stick to our game plan and play to our strengths, being proactive rather than reactive."

Both sides may try to play down de Lange's absence but the South African-born left-armer is joint leading wicket-taker in the Union with the best economy rate and best average of any bowler.

Given that he is also the third leading run scorer in the division his loss will surely be felt over the coming weeks.

The batting chart shows Michael English and Preston-Jones himself in the top five while fellow left-armer HamzaTahir shares de Lange's tally of nineteen wickets so Ferguslie's strengths are clear.

Elsewhere, second placed Kelburne are poised to pounce on any slip-up by the leaders and are strong favourites to extend Renfrew's losing sequence at Whitehaugh.

Likewise East Kilbride have the chance to stay firmly in touch but will be tested by reigning champions Ayr at Torrance House.

Uddingston and Dumfries may reflect on recent glories when they meet in a mid-table clash at Bothwell Castle while second bottom West of Scotland can close the gap on a Drumpellier side who are without Graeme McLaren at Hamilton Crescent.