COMMONWEALTH GAMES SPECIAL: With the 18th Commonwealth Games due to get under way in Melbourne on Wednesday, The Chronicle brings you an update on how five local contenders are preparing for their big challenge.
JAMES Fair says excitement is building in the England hockey squad's camp as the countdown to the 18th Commonwealth Games continues.
The goalkeeper from Pulford jetted to Melbourne last week and, having spent the last few days in training, will enter the athletes' village in Melbourne tomorrow.
The former Deeside Ramblers player said: 'Training has improved over the last few days as the players have recovered from the flight.
'I think we are looking pretty sharp now. 'I'm not too nervous yet but the prospect of attending the opening ceremony is really exciting. There has been a lot of build up on the TV - mainly talking about the Aussies though!'
He added: 'It will be good to get in the village and be able to mix with all the other athletes. Also by that point we will getting close to the start of the tournament.'
Now aged 25, Fair plays for National League side Cannock and has relocated from Pulford to Birmingham, where he works as a part-time hockey coach.
His rival for the goalkeeper's jersey is the experienced Jon Ebsworth, who has 28 England caps and 14 for Great Britain.
Currently ranked 11th in the world, team manager Peter Nicholson's men will be the sixth highest ranked team competing in Melbourne and captain Brett Garrard is the only survivor from the squad that finished fifth in Manchester four years ago.
Garrard, who has 152 England caps, is one of four players in the 16-man party that featured for Great Britain in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
England have been drawn in a tough group with New Zealand, Canada, Scotland and reigning Olympic and Commonwealth champions Australia.
Once the challenge for medals is over in Melbourne, Fair and his England teammates head to China for World Cup qualifying.
Rest is best for Tweddle
BETH Tweddle expects to miss the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony - again!
The 20-year-old gymnast from Bunbury did not attend the spectacular curtain-raiser in Manchester four years ago and is unlikely to be present when the 2006 Games are officially opened at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday.
Tweddle and her England teammates will instead be resting their limbs as they are due in action in the women's team event just two days later.
She said: 'We weren't allowed to go to the opening ceremony in Manchester and we might not go again.
'It's quite a lot of walking and you could be standing for two to three hours, which is not good when you are due to compete two days later.'
A new scoring system comes into force for the first time in Melbourne and Tweddle - a winner of one gold and two silvers in Manchester - hopes the changes do not prove too controversial.
She said: 'They've just changed all the coding and scoring systems and I haven't had any competitions on it yet. It will be just a case of doing my own routines and seeing where they place me.
'It's quite a good event to try out the routines on. It's not like the Europeans, where you've got the likes of Russia.
'Hopefully there won't be too much controversy.'
Beth will be competing against one of her best friends Down Under - Mel Roberts.
The 17-year-old from Saltney has known Beth for about nine years and they train together at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club.
Mel said: 'We know that outside the gym we're the best of friends and inside the gym we do our own job. There will never be any nastiness with us!'
Suzy is fighting fit for Oz
SUZY Drane was struck down by a flu bug just before boarding the plane to Australia.
The former Chester Netball Club player jetted out of the UK with her Wales teammates last Friday and is now on the road to recovery.
Suzy's dad, Kelvin, said: 'She was very excited about leaving for Australia but picked up a bug at university in Cardiff before she went out.
'She's taken some antibiotics and, thankfully, seems to be getting over that now.'
St Asaph -born Suzy, a former Christleton High School pupil, hopes to see plenty of court time despite being the youngest member of Wales' 12-strong squad.
The 19-year-old's mum and dad, Carol and Kelvin, will leave the family home in Waverton next week to watch their daughter in action in Melbourne.
The netball competition sees two groups of six nations face-off in a round-robin tournament before the top two from each group go through to the semi-finals.
The remaining eight nations then play-off to decide the finishing places from fifth to 12th.
Wales begin by facing hosts Australia a week today - a match likely to attract a 4,000 crowd.
Big hitter puts rivals on ropes
ENGLAND'S boxers are eyeing a big medal haul Down Under and Vauxhall ABC bantamweight Nick MacDonald is one of the team's brightest prospects.
The Wirral-based 22-year-old is one of four Merseysiders in England's 11-strong squad.
The Amateur Boxing Association of England is confident of eclipsing the achievements of four years ago in Manchester where the team won two gold, three silver and a bronze.
Paul King, chief executive of the ABAE, said: 'This is the strongest team we've ever assembled for a major international competition.
'Many of the lads are in the best shape of their lives and Melbourne has come at the right time in their careers.
'Winning eight medals at Melbourne is a realistic target. As a nation you want to improve on the previous competition and I believe we are on course to eclipse the amazing results we had in Manchester.'
MacDonald heads to Australia as the reigning ABA bantamweight champion.