Head coach John Wells says Newcastle Falcons have to be mentally switched-on as they visit his former club Leicester Tigers in Saturday’s televised Aviva Premiership clash.
The 3pm kick-off sees the Falcons facing the side they lost out to by a single point when they met in the North East back in September, Newcastle going into the Welford Road encounter on the back of a last-minute home win over Gloucester.
Match-winner that night, Joel Hodgson, replaces Mike Delany at fly-half after the Kiwi broke his thumb last time out, Sinoti Sinoti coming into the side as an injury to Alex Tait sees Marcus Watson switch to full-back. The only change in the forward pack sees Tonga captain Nili Latu replacing Ally Hogg, the Falcons looking to win at Welford Road for the first time in almost two decades.
Wells, a long-time player and coach with the Tigers, said: “We tend to be more mentally robust at home than we are away for some reason, and even when teams come to Kingston Park with an all-singing, all-dancing squad, we tend to have a more positive and robust mind-set. Part of the challenge for us as coaches and our group of players is to take that same mentality with us when we’re away, and to have that ability to rise to the occasion at other grounds.
“We may not always win at home but we play consistently better, and seem to be more mentally switched-on. It’s fair to say there are a few other clubs in the same boat, and it’s also a mark of the sides at the top of the league that they can produce it on the road. The next stage in our club’s development is to go to the so-called big places on a more consistent basis, and do what we did by winning at Gloucester and Northampton earlier in the season.
“Newcastle have not won at Welford Road in almost 20 years, and to put it into context our director of rugby Dean Richards was playing in that game. We’ve had one draw there and lost every other time, and what our lads need to understand is that if you want to go to Leicester and win, you’ve got to better them in the areas where they pride themselves. Not match them, be better.”
The Tigers go into Saturday’s game with a new man at the helm following the reappointment of Matt O’Connor as head coach, Wells saying: “Whatever you say about Leicester, they have been beaten at home this season and are not an unbeatable team. You’ve got to get your rugby basics right to give yourself a chance, but more important than that you have to get your head right.
“On the coaching side you’ve only got to look a few hundred yards down the road at Leicester City in terms of the bounce they’ve had since they replaced Claudio Ranieri with Craig Shakespeare, and sport has that habit of dealing with managerial change.
“I don’t suppose it’s easy for Matt. He has been there before, he knows the bulk of the players and the coaching staff, he’s a good coach and a very technically astute coach, and he will be able to fit right in in that sense. He has probably got a slightly different style to Aaron Mauger, but it’s a style that has been very successful for Leicester Tigers in the past. The question now is, are they just in that little bit of transition?
“Time will tell on that, but in terms of where Leicester are at the moment, people probably judge them a lot on what happened in Europe. That has been the worst part of their season, and they struggled against crack opposition. But when you look at the league they’ve pulled themselves from mid-table into a top-four position, they’re playing with more confidence now and I’d imagine if they stay in the top four they’ll be a handful for anyone who plays them in the Premiership semi-finals.
“We’ve kind of got to park that a little bit and just say to ourselves that as much as Leicester want top four, we want top seven. Everybody here is appreciative of the fact there is still a Champions Cup spot to play for, even if it ends up being via a play-off.”
Having seen his team ship a half-century of points in defeat at Harlequins and then achieve a home victory against Gloucester the following game, Wells added: “Mind-set. That was the difference between the two performances, and if we get that right we can do good things.
“You can’t be a bad player one week and a good player the next. It’s all down to the mental side with the better players, and we’re at our best when we have that attitude and edge about us. We don’t perform well when we’re off the pace, and we have to be on it for the full 80. If we drop off for 10 minutes we have a tendency to ship three tries, and we need to move away from that.
“When we reflect back on this season and are hard enough on ourselves to understand there have been opportunities to put ourselves in closer contention, we’ll know there are games we should have finished off. We could have been higher up the table, and rather than fighting ninth and tenth you want to be fighting sixth and seventh.
“We’re ambitious, and I suspect it can be very frustrating watching and supporting us. You get good performances and pretty average performances, and we need to be putting in the good ones week in, week out. Even if we go away, play well and lose narrowly, we might pick up one or two bonus points, and you’re quietly ticking over. We need to make it harder for teams to be picking up fours and fives against us, and that’s the step we have to take.”
Relishing the opportunity to return to Welford Road, where he enjoyed success as both player and coach, Wells said: “To be fair to the people of Leicester, even though Dean and I have had our time down there and are no longer with the club, they have always been brilliant when we’ve gone back.
“You’ve got the wags in the crowd who will chirp in with a few comments, but it’s all good-natured banter and nothing that crosses that line. There’s never any nastiness and it genuinely is a pleasure whenever we go back there.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Leicester Tigers (Saturday, 3pm, Welford Road, live on BT Sport)
15 Marcus Watson
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Joel Hodgson
9 Michael Young
1 Rob Vickers
2 Kyle Cooper
3 David Wilson
4 Calum Green
5 Evan Olmstead
6 Mark Wilson
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Nili Latu
16 Ben Sowrey
17 Ben Harris
18 Jon Welsh
19 Will Witty
20 Callum Chick
21 Sam Egerton
22 Craig Willis
23 Zach Kibirige
Referee: Ian Tempest