THIS summer's York International 9s Festival will have its strongest line-up ever.

The tournament has been streamlined this year as organisers go for quality over quantity, with all the competitions taking place on one day rather than two, and eight teams, rather than 12, competing in the headline Fairfax Cup.

It has resulted in the best-looking line-up since the York 9s festival began in 2002, with two National League sides, two from the French Elite Championship, and reigning Lézignan-Corbières 9s champions Espagne Origine involved. There will also be former international heroes on show as Barrie McDermott returns with his Ambassadors side.

The ever-popular York Ironsides will be back, again led by ex-internationals Chris Smith and Paul Newlove, and they join York City Knights, who will defend the title they took on their competition debut last year, as local favourites.

The new competition format will see the eight teams split into two pools of four, with the top two from each group qualifying for the semi-finals. The bottom two in each group will compete in play-offs to determine finishing positions fifth to eighth.

The draw will take place on Friday, June 29. The tournament, including the auxiliary Archbishop Dolben Cup, will be at Heworth ARLC's Elmpark Way ground on Saturday, July 14.

Fairfax line-ups

York City Knights - reigning Fairfax Cup champions, the Knights beat Batley Bulldogs 14-10 in last year's final on their first appearance in the festival. With a National League Two game the next day, Mick Cook's hands could be tied when it comes to picking a squad, but fans might get the chance to see upcoming Knights talent on show.

Barrie McDermott's Ambassadors - proved hugely popular when they entered the Fairfax Cup in 2006, generating a great deal of publicity for the festival in which they reached the semi-finals. They will again feature a mixture of former professionals and youngsters.

Dewsbury Rams - with no National League One games that weekend, experienced coach Andy Kelly could field a strong side on their festival debut. They will be one of the favourites.

FC Lézignan XIII - narrowly beaten by Pia in the French Elite Championship grand final last month after finishing third. Boast a strong 9s record, including winning the Fairfax Cup in 2003 and finalists in 2002. Among the favourites.

British Army - with a strong heritage in the shortened forms of rugby, the Army are consistent performers in rugby union 7s and rugby league 9s. Fairfax Cup finalists in 2005.

Espagne Origine - made up of French-based players with Spanish ancestry, Origine will bring a colourful new dimension. They had an explosive introduction to the 9s circuit in 2006 by making the final in Venice before winning the Lézignan-Corbières 9s, beating favourites FC Lézignan in the semi-finals.

Lyon Villeurbanne XIII - one of the foundation French clubs and the first winners of the Lord Derby Cup - the French equivalent of the Challenge Cup - in 1935. Fairfax Cup quarter-finalists last year.

York Ironsides - featuring York-based players and popular with local support, the Ironsides were Fairfax Cup finalists in 2003 and 2004. Coaches Chris Smith and Paul Newlove, both former Super League champions with St Helens, keen to break their duck.

Archbishop Dolben Cup teams

Featherstone Rovers, York RUFC, Broughton Rangers, RAF, Police Sport, Royal Navy, Beach Boys, York Tigers.