DARLINGTON Mowden Park have a secret weapon on the bench today in Zylon McGaffin, who has returned from South Africa to bolster their bid for the National Two North title.

Conditions might not be to the liking of the livewire scrum half for the visit of Preston Grasshoppers, but he will be an asset as the three-horse promotion battle boils up to a climax.

Skipper Cameron Mitchell and lock Pierce Phillips returned unscathed from their trip to France, where the England Counties XV lost 16-15.

Both hope to be involved again when the Counties take on their Irish counterparts at the Northern Echo Arena on Friday, February 21 (7.30).

Phillips is unavailable today, so Chris Campbell continues at lock.

Chris Peace starts at centre, with Callum McKenzie on the wing and Chris McTurk at full back.

The Grasshoppers lie tenth after a disappointing run culminating in a

10-7 defeat at home to Luctonians last week. Mowden won 34-10 at Preston in October.

Blaydon are without two of their England Counties men, prop Robbie Kalbraier and back row man Gavin Jones, for the National One home match against Richmond.

If they are selected again on Friday week, along with lock Chris Wearmouth, Blaydon will have to do without them for the rearranged match at Cinderford the following day.

James Hallam deputises for Kalbraier and Harry Bate for Jones and Blaydon are confident the game will go ahead, although they have to let the visitors know before they leave on the 8.30 train from London.

Nathan Bailey is at full back as Zach Kibirige was again playing for England Under 20s against Scotland at Netherdale last night.

Tynedale need to continue their improvement away to Loughborough Students, who have slipped down the table since their flying start.

Despite winning four of the last five, Tynedale have slipped back into the bottom three because of Blackheath's resurgence since borrowing some players from London Welsh.

The North-East trio in National Three North occupy the three places just outside the relegation zone with Billingham looking the most comfortable in ninth spot.

They face a tough game at home to second-placed Stockport, while Westoe entertain Sale FC and Percy Park will do well to get anything from their trip to Huddersfield.

West Hartlepool's unbeaten home record will be put to test by North One East leaders Cleckheaton, who have lost only once all season.

Peter Youll returns in the only change for West after recovering from a broken ankle. He will be on the wing with Luke Mallinson moving to full back in place of Colin Chelsin, who has a back injury.

Middlesbrough, six points adrift of safety, are desperate to end a run of six defeats at Northern. The backs have been shuffled with Jack Bircham at fly half, Peter Wright at scrum half, Gary Rock and Ben Wood on the wings, and Adam Nolson at full back.

In the forwards Phil Harland and Richard Lonsdale return and are paired in the second row, with Josh Lynas at prop.

Horden entertain Guisborough in a top-of-the-table clash in Durham and Northumberland One, while Darlington will need to win at Blyth if their challenge is not to fade even further.

Stockton's home game against Consett has been postponed until 15 March.

Consett have to play their National Intermediate Cup game against York, which was called off last week because of a waterlogged pitch.

n Durham Under 20s, who have often struggled to raise a side in recent seasons, play their national quarter-final against Warwickshire at West Hartlepool TDSOB tomorrow (2.15).

Team: Tom Studd (Durham City), Eldon Myers (Billingham), Elliott Husband (Durham University), Matthew Kirby (Billingham), Danny Wilson (East Durham College), Jordan Carey (Westoe), Nathan Horsfall (Westoe), Jack Angus (Billingham), Tom Larder (capt, Darlington Mowden Park), Ben Simpson (Mowden Park), Alex Johnson (West Hartlepool), Lee Little (Westoe), Nathan Myers (Wharfedale), Anthony Jackson (Billingham), Jack Chapman (Bradford and Bingley).