ALASTAIR McHarg is usually as optimistic an individual as you would hope to meet in rugby circles. Yesterday, however, as the Exiles prepared to defend their Inter-District crown, the coach admitted it would be a miracle if they secured the glory again.

McHarg's troops launch their campaign against the Borders at Riverside Park tonight at the start of a hectic festive schedule. Not only have they been hit by a spate of injuries to key men, but some players face the prospect of five matches in 11 days, with Christmas in there too.

McHarg said: ''Unlike the home-based players, many of my squad will be involved in English league games on Saturday before heading back north for another district encounter next Thursday.

''They will have to shuttle back south for club duty on the next Saturday - then about-turn for yet another Exiles appearance just 24 hours later. Obviously, the schedule is not ideal for us and the odds are firmly against us retaining the title under these circumstances. But these are the cards we have been dealt and we just have to get on with it.''

The former Scotland forward added: ''I don't know if it is a posi-tive omen or not, but when we triumphed in the last ever old-style championship back in the mid-90s, we were forced to go through a similar quickfire series of matches.''

Borders officials have been forced to make two late changes on the bench. Selkirk hooker Darren Hogan replaces Wayne Mitchell of Melrose, while Scotland under-21 scrum-half David Irving deputises for clubmate Kevin Reid.

The series is being billed as a golden opportunity for players seeking to demonstrate their readiness to step-up to the professional stage.

SRU domestic game manager John Thorburn said: ''In the recent past, the championship has been staged towards the end of the season, but in utilising this window around the festive season we are giving ambitious club players the chance to play at a higher level. The competition is a shop window for players who want to play professional rugby in Scotland but it is also a matter of district pride and I would encourage spectators to come along.''

l Two former colleagues at Glasgow Hawks, Shade Munro and George Breckenridge, have joined forces again to spearhead Glasgow's campaign. Munro will carry as head-coach, while Breckenridge, with Ayr, replaces Sandy Service as backs coach. They kick off against Inter-City rivals Edinburgh at Pennypit Park next Thursday,

l Edinburgh lock Richard Metcalfe is set to have an operation to repair his damaged shoulder today. The Scotland player suffered a dislocation of his right shoulder in the Welsh/Scottish League match against Bridgend on December 7 and is to undergo surgery after visiting a special-ist yesterday.

Stand-off Duncan Hodge has resumed training after picking up a knock in the defeat by leaders Llanelli at the weekend and Craig Smith reports no reaction to the foot fracture that he suffered against Bath in the Heineken Cup clash at the start of November and is back in full training.

teams and championship schedule

Borders S Paterson (Gala); G Caldwell, C MacRae (both Melrose), D Gray (Gala), B Ruthven (Melrose); C Laidlaw (Jed-Forest), G Cowe (Kelso); B McDonnell (Jed-Forest), M Landels (Hawick), D Paxton (Kelso), J Szkudro (Jed-Forest), S MacLeod (Hawick), T Walker (Gala), B Keown (Hawick), A Roxburgh (Kelso)

Substitutes D Hogan (Selkirk), H Fraser, T Weir, J Dalziel (all Melrose), D Irving (Hawick), S Nichol (Peebles), C Turnbull (Hawick)

Exiles B Hinshelwood (Worcester); C Aitken (London Scottish), P Baird (Kettering), S Manson (Harrogate), A McLean (Coventry); G McDonald (Moseley), D Bruce (Reading); N Lloyd (Wakefield), F Gladstone (Rugby), A Grierson (Reading), D Whitehead (Arras), S Begley (Old Belvedere), D Jackson (Bracknell), J Murray (Tynedale), L Hamilton (Wakefield)

Substitutes J Buchanan (Kettering), J Kelly (Bracknell), J Summers (Reading), S Wands (Waterloo), M Birch (Otley), C Day (UWIC), N Murray (Morley).

Referee M Hall (Boroughmuir)

Championship schedule

Tonight Borders v Exiles (Riverside Park, 7pm). Saturday Caledonia v Edinburgh (Rubislaw, 1.30pm). Thursday, December 27 Exiles v Caledonia (Murrayfield 7.30pm), Edinburgh v Glasgow (Pennypit Park 7pm). Saturday, December 29 Glasgow v Borders (Dalziel 2pm). Sunday, December 30 Edinburgh v Exiles (Meggetland 2pm). Thursday, January 3 Caledonia v Borders (Bridgehaugh 7pm), Exiles v Glasgow (Orrell 7pm). Saturday, January 5 Glasgow v Caledonia (Burnbrae 2pm). Sunday, January 6 Borders v Edinburgh (Poynder Park 2pm)