Glasgow Caledonian Reds v Ebbw Vale

Glasgow Caledonians will be tested in every department today as they seek to prove that they are serious contenders for honours in the new Celtic League.

That is the confident prediction from Ebbw Vale, who have been one of the surprise packages in the competition so far.

They may be tied with today's hosts - the match takes place at Ayr's Millbrae (6.30 pm) - having won one and lost one, but what was a stuffy side playing 10-man rugby when both Scotland's super- districts faced them last season, have set the pace for the league in try-scoring terms.

''When we played Edinburgh Reivers in the European Cup and Glasgow Caledonians in the Welsh Challenge Trophy last season we competed up front, but particularly against Edinburgh down here we were torn apart behind the scrum,'' admitted Ebbw Vale's chief executive Roy Harris.

''We had the same problem in Toulouse in the European Cup. Our forwards actually dominated the game - and yet we lost by 100 points.

''It was our first season in Europe and we found that we were too one-dimensional.

''You can be successful like that in Wales, but we are looking beyond that.

''So, although we've kept the majority of our pack together we've brought in a number of young backs who can shift.''

Rewards have come quickly since, to the extent that while flanker Brad Clark has scored two of their 10 league tries, the other eight have been shared amongst their backs in the 38-29 opening day defeat by Llanelli and last weekend's 54-24 rout of Caerphilly.

Even one of their enforced changes, Welsh second-string scrum half David Llewellyn having joined Newport, has worked to their benefit.

''David is a very strong, forward-oriented scrum half, but the players we have brought in are capable of getting the ball out and giving our backs more freedom,'' Harris said of new recruits Richard Smith and Guy Easterby.

He did, though, stress that what Ebbw Vale have attempted to do is provide themselves with greater options, rather than transform themselves into a side committed to cavalier, 15-man rugby.

That being the case, Smith is listed to start the game at the moment, but former London Scottish scrum-half Easterby, a more powerful ball carrier, will do so if, as is being forecast, the weather conditions mitigate against running rugby.

None of which was any sort of surprise to Caledonians coach Richie Dixon, who was well aware of their try-scoring exploits and the contrast that made to the style they employed against the Scottish teams last year. He is expecting Easterby to start the game and is preparing his front five for a severe test of resolve.

''Traditionally, Welsh teams tend to have big front fives anyway, so we've been working very hard with the unit that we've got,'' said Dixon. ''If they don't provide the platform we're going to struggle in any game.''

Since the bulk of the experience in this Caledonians line-up is in and around the scrum, he believes his men will cope for that sort of approach from Ebbw Vale.

Indeed, Dixon is of the view that the evidence of the opening two matches is that Caledonians have the winning of this match entirely in their own hands.

''We use the video judiciously, but we haven't overloaded them with that side of things,'' he explained. ''What we've concentrated on since last weekend is our own performance, and, in particular, rewards and punishments for doing things right or wrong.

''Our biggest problem has been our ball retention at the critical moment.

''When we've got that right in both our matches so far we've scored good tries, but we should be rewarding ourselves for our own good play much more often.

''When we don't and we lose the ball we will be punished heavily in league rugby.''

That the Scottish sides have yet to be acknowledged as a serious threat by their Welsh counterparts, and that they have yet to earn real respect, is something Dixon is well aware of.

''We felt we should have done that against Pontypridd a fortnight ago, but we didn't take the opportunities that were there,'' he admitted.

''As in any league, the very first priority is to win your home matches.''

That said there was no sense from the Ebbw Vale end that there is any degree of complacency about facing a side that can afford to leave World Cup squad member Dave Hilton on the bench.

''We haven't read a great deal into their result against Pontypridd,'' Harris admitted.

''If anyone had looked at the first half of our opening game against Llanelli they would have got a very false impression of what we are capable of.''

While these are early days, though, this match is one that takes on considerable significance in the longer term.

Caledonians may have substantially more to look forward to after the World Cup, with Glenn Metcalfe, Gordon Bulloch, and Shaun Longstaff all due to return to them at that stage.

However, even allowing for the fact that league points will be doubled from that stage on, no side with realistic hopes of claiming the title at the end of the season can afford to give up too much ground in the first half of the campaign.

With a trip to Swansea looming next week, Caledonians know, then, that this is a match that they really must win to be sure of keeping up with the pace-setters.

That Pontypridd currently top the table, and that, along with Neath, they are one of only two sides to have won both their opening matches, ought to provide reassurance that both they and the Reivers will be very competitive in this competition.

As professional players, though, they must prove they have the hard edge to win matches they are expected to, which frequently seems to be the most difficult thing for Scottish sides to do.

Glasgow Caledonian Reds: A Bulloch; J craig, I McInroy, J Stuart, R Kerr; C Chalmers, A Nicol (captain) G McIlwham, G Scott, W Anderson, S Campbell, S Griffiths, J Petrie, M Waite, G Flockhart.

Replacements: F Stott, T Hayes, I Jardine, J White, D Burns, D Hilton, D Hall.

Ebbw Vale: J Williams; A Harries, S John, J Hawker, A Wagstaff; J Strange, R Smith; A Phillips, L Phillips, A Metcalfe, G Llewellyn, L Banks, N Budgett, B Clark, M Jones (captain).

Replacements: J Thomas, A Peacock, M Spiller, G Green, G Williams, S Connor, G Easterby.