POWERFUL Morpeth Harriers will be chasing a hat-trick of victories in today's North-East Road Relay Championships at Gateshead.

The Northumbrians lifted the handsome Royal Signals Trophy for a second year when the championships moved in 2005 to Saltwell Park after police declared the old course on the roads at Team Valley - used for 40 years - to be hazardous.

Morpeth, Northern champions and runners-up in the National Six-Stage Road Relay Championships, have proved to be virtually unbeatable in team events in the region when they have been able to call upon their top athletes.

Last weekend Morpeth claimed the silver team medals in the Alsager five-mile road race near Stoke when Great Britain World Cross Country international Ian Hudspith finished third, only three seconds behind the winner, Sale's Stuart Stokes. Brother Mark, the former Commonwealth Games marathon bronze medallist, was ninth and Ivan Hollingsworth (16th) was final counter in the three-man team which finished two points behind winners Sale.

Last year Morpeth were comfortable winners of the North-East team title, with their first-leg runner, Dan Samuels, clocking the fastest time of the day as the Northumbrians led from start to finish in the six-man event, beating a youthful Gosforth team by two minutes.

Sunderland Harriers, who have won the trophy ten times, were a disappointing sixth in the senior event last year and go into today's race looking for inspiration from some of their veteran runners.

The Wearsiders were runaway winners of the over-40 championship race in 2005, beating North Shields Polytechnic by over four minutes as Brian Rushworth, the double British Veterans Cross Country Champion, clocked the fastest leg.

Now Sunderland have decided to bolster their senior men's team by including Rushworth and the in-form former club captain Tim Field, who has caught the eye since moving up into the over-40s last year.

Sunderland still have a very strong veterans' team, including former London Marathon over-40 winner Dave Robertson, back after injury, and triathlon international Tom Doughty, and will be favourites to win for a fourth year in succession.

The women's championship promises to be a tussle between defending champions Gateshead and Chester-le-Street, winners of last month's Durham Cathedral Relays. Jarrow and Hebburn, second at Saltwell Park last year, are still without their top runner, Claire Simpson, who clocked the fastest time in 2005.