SIDES looking to challenge for the Principality Premiership crown this season can lay down a marker today before reigning champions Ebbw Vale get the defence of their title up and running at Llanelli tomorrow (2.30pm).

The new campaign’s first round of fixtures have been spread over three days with the Steelmen, who beat Pontypridd in the grand final in May, involved in the last of the weekend’s eight matches.

Cardiff and Newport kicked things off at the Arms Park last night and a further six games take place today, including the much-anticipated visit of big spenders Merthyr to Pandy Park in Cross Keys.

Scott Matthews leads Keys after taking over the captaincy from the injured Leon Andrews, while Merthyr’s Owen Howe, Nathan Buck and Dean Gunter all return to their former club. With Andrews missing, Lewis Barnett, who joined Keys on a permanent basis in the summer after impressing on permit last term, gets his chance at outside centre.

Bedwas start on home turf with a tough test against Pontypridd, although the visitors are without the injured Geraint Walsh, Chris Clayton, Gary Williams, Wayne Evans, Pat Palmer, Darren Waters and Owen Sheppeard through injury.

Premiership new boys Bargoed have home advantage for their first top flight game when Neath travel to Bargoed Park, fellow newcomers RGC 1404 go to Bridgend, Aberavon host Llandovery and Carmarthen Quins meet newly-promoted Swansea at St Helen’s (all 2.30pm).

Squads – Bargoed: C Jones; D Evans, D Humphries, L Protheroe, L Hudd; S Withers, J Pizey; R Morgan (capt), I Jenkins, K Brown, L Beach, B Morgan, A Coupe, A Herbert, R Coombs. Reps: J Williams, V Lott, L Lippiett, L Blacker, G McDonnell, J Hallett, G Callow, A Norton.

Bedwas: A Bramwell; P Lewis, M Callow, C Edwards, A Williams; R Powell (capt), N Griffiths; D Preece, A Rees, M Pettit, G Edmunds, M Screech, A Waite, J Benjamin, R Blake. Reps: B Toms, J Haines, J Mills, T Bell, J Richards, L Crane, J Dixon, G Payne.

Cross Keys: E Davies; M Powell, L Barnett, P Williams, N Trowbridge; J Prosser, J Leadbeater; L Smout, D Hughes, R Cornock, D Hodge, J Skinner, I Jones, S Matthews (capt), A Powell. Reps: E Shipp, C Hewlett, G Carpenter, M George, J Unwin, B Nightingale, O Leonard, T Lampard.

Ebbw Vale: TBC.