CROSS Keys will be without playmaker Jacob Botica when they bid for a vital derby win against Ebbw Vale at Pandy Park in their Principality Premiership survival bid.

The fly-half, a summer signing from RGC, was picked by Ebbw in the pre-season draft of Dragons players.

The 25-year-old was a Steelman as recently as December 8 but then moved from Eugene Cross Park to Pandy Park to solve Keys' problems at 10.

Jason Tovey's return to the Dragons for a third spell, initially on permit, had left the strugglers short at fly-half and Botica, who is yet to make a regional outing, made the short trip south.

The son of All Black and Wigan rugby league great Frano started at 10 in Keys' last five fixtures but will not feature in this weekend's clash between his former side and current one.

However, the hosts are boosted by the presence of centre Tiaan Loots after he made his club debut in the loss to title-chasing Cardiff last week.

The South African, who joined from RGC along with Botica, made his return after tearing a pectoral muscle for the Dragons A in the Celtic Cup in September.

Keys lost 21-18 to the Blue and Blacks in a game switched to the plastic pitch in Ystrad Mynach because of a waterlogged surface at Pandy Park but struck in the last minute for what could prove to be a vital losing bonus point.

Morgan Stoddart's side sit in the last safe spot in the table with the relegation berths occupied by cut-adrift duo Neath and Bargoed plus Bridgend and Llanelli, while Bedwas are in the play-off placing and three points back on Keys.

There will be twists and turns ahead in the scramble to avoid the drop and a showdown with Championship winners Pontypool, with Ebbw happy to be well clear of such drama.

The Steelmen sit fourth in the table and know that their hosts' plight means they will have to battle to repeat last May's 15-11 success at Pandy Park.

Coach Lewis Roberts said: "Like any Gwent derby it is always a tough game and we fully expect a physical encounter, especially with some of the key players they have up front.

"Richard Cornock and Tom Lampard have been important to them for a long time while Damian Welch and Ieuan Jones have regional experience.

"We are under no illusions about how tough it is going to be and we have to be on the money up front.

"Keys are not where they would like to be but have ground out some good results recently to be just above the relegation and play-off places. Every point is crucial to them and they will be targeting a big win to boost their tally."

Ebbw head into the game on the back of a 29-15 loss to Swansea at St Helen's that has killed off their slim title hopes.

"There were certain aspects that were pleasing," said Roberts. "In the first half we defended really well into the wind and there were good individual performances from Cameron Regan and Joe Franchi.

"But in the second half we were just far too loose and on that big pitch Swansea capitalised on our mistakes.

"The boys are chomping at the bit to right the wrongs and know that Keys are going to come out all guns blazing."

The Steelmen are still without former Dragons centre/full-back Carl Meyer, who is back in South Africa.

- Ebbw's home fixture with Neath, which was postponed because of snow at the start of the month, will be played on Saturday, April 27 (kick-off 2.30pm) while their clash with Llandovery at Eugene Cross Park has been moved to Thursday, March 14 (kick-off 7.15pm).