New look Whites all set to host the NI champions
Irish Premiership champions Crusaders will take on Rathfriland Rangers in a showpiece friendly at Iveagh Park on Saturday.
The clash (kick-off 2pm) comes seven months after the Whites took on the Crues in a glamour Irish Cup fifth-round tie at Seaview in Belfast.
Since then, the two sides have revelled in success, dominating their respective divisions and winning league titles apiece.
Crusaders have already got their season underway, playing in the second qualifying round of the Champions League.
They lost their opening tie to Danish champions FC Copenhagan last week, and will visit Rathfriland off the back of tonight’s (Tuesday) return leg.
The Belfast club play two games on Saturday, the other at Armagh City, and manager Stephen Baxter will split his first-team squad between the two fixtures.
A huge crowd is expected at Iveagh Park for the friendly and new Rathfriland boss Paul Kirk said he was relishing the chance to send his players out against the best in the country.
“It’ll be a strong side we’ll play against,” he said.
“It’s going to be only our second game in, whereas when we played them in January everyone was up to match speed.
“But it’s good for the club - hopefully the supporters will come out and we’ll give a good account of ourselves.
“I’m confident we will, but if we don’t it’ll show up the weaknesses we have to work on before the season kicks in.”
Back in January, Rathfriland took a colossal support of more than 300 to Seaview and put on a solid display against the Crues.
They only went down to a 3-0 defeat, impressing all onlookers, including Baxter himself.
Kirk, who took the reins at Rathfriland in May, said he has been hugely impressed by the attitude of his squad during what has been an intense pre-season training regime.
“The players have been brilliant and the response I’ve got from them since I came in has been great,” he said.
“The boys have worked extremely hard and they put in double sessions on a couple of Saturdays, which has been very heavy on them.
“And I’ve been quite impressed by the younger players at the club - a number of them have caught my eye.”
Kirk has been busy in the off-season, adding seven players to the Rangers’ ranks.
Goalkeeper Mark Winstone replaces Shane Harrison, has moved to Warrenpoint Town, while Daryl Evans, Gareth Ringland, Peter McCann and David Graham all joined from Kirk’s old club Lisburn Rangers over the last two months.
His latest two captures are Ards Rangers full-back Johnny Roy and striker Nathan McConnell, another former Lisburn Rangers man.
“They’re two great lads and they’ll add more and more quality for us,” Kirk said.
“Johnny has played with me in the NAFL representative teams over the last few years and he gives you strong running and overlapping on the right all day.
“He’s won league titles with Ards Rangers and he’s a massive addition for us.
“And I signed big Nathan from Carrick Rangers halfway through last season and he scored the really important goals that helped to get Lisburn promoted.”
Before the Crues game, Rathfriland will play NAFL side St Luke’s at home on Tuesday night.
The Belfast side won Division 2A last year and will provide formidable opposition for the Whites.
And the start of the league season is only a few weeks away, with Rathfriland making the step up to the NAFL’s Premier Division.
They will begin the campaign with a mouthwatering clash away to Ards Rangers, who narrowly missed out on another title last season.
One thing is for sure - under Kirk, the Whites are showing no fear.