Newcastle Falcons welcome back fly-half Toby Flood for Saturday’s Aviva Premiership semi-final at Exeter Chiefs.
The 3.30pm kick-off at Sandy Park sees the three-time title winner playing his first game in six weeks after recovering from a hand injury, hooker Kyle Cooper also returning to the fray in a team showing eight changes from the one which hosted Wasps a fortnight ago.
Sam Lockwood and Scott Wilson come in at prop while Calum Green returns to the second row, Mark Wilson captaining the side in the continued absence of the injured Will Welch. In the half-backs backs Michael Young partners Flood, Josh Matavesi moving back to inside centre in a three-quarter line which sees Aviva Premiership Player of the Season Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti coming in on the wings.
Sinoti this week won the Premiership’s Try of the Season award for his stunning solo score in the Falcons’ 28-20 triumph over Exeter in January, director of rugby Dean Richards saying: “I’m excited by the semi-final, I always loved the big games when I was a player and I’m the same in my current role.
“The great thing is that the players share that excitement, they’re absolutely up for the game and you can feel the buzz around the whole club. Training has gone well, the sun is shining and everyone has a smile on their face. It means a huge amount to the whole club, not just the team.
“We’ve had two weeks between games which has allowed a few niggles to be ironed out and we’ve been able to have a proper period of preparation as well as giving the guys sufficient rest to ensure they’re fresh for Saturday afternoon.
“With it being a semi-final we can just focus entirely on one game rather than what happens the week after, the detail of our build-up has been excellent and I really feel we’re in good shape. It’s about channelling our excitement and making sure we execute our game plan, but the boys seem mentally switched on and ready to roll.”
Billed as clear underdogs by those outside Kingston Park, the Falcons boss said: “Everybody’s tipping Exeter to win but we’ve gone well away from home this season, so we’ve got a lot of belief without any of the external pressure. It’s not that we don’t have a care in the world, but we’ve certainly got nothing to lose down there. We’ll just give it our all and see what happens, and we’ve already beaten Exeter in the Premiership this season.
“In that respect it doesn’t hold any fear for us, it’s just understanding how to go about it and executing the plan down to the Nth degree. These little percentages here and there make a massive difference when you’re in semi-finals, and you can’t get away with some of the things which you might do during the regular season. This is when your detail and your accuracy really starts to count.
“That said, Exeter are an outstanding side and we have absolute respect for them. They’re are an incredibly patient and well-coached team who are happy to keep the ball for 20 or 30 phases on occasion, and they’re quite similar to ourselves in that regard.”
In the week that he was named Director of Rugby of the Season at the Aviva Premiership Awards, Richards said: “It’s not about me, it’s about the team as a whole and all the boys have played a big part.
“It sits a little uncomfortably with me when I receive these kind of plaudits because it’s a massive collective effort rather than any one person, and everyone pulls their weight. There’s not one person who stands out as being dominant, so any compliments we get should be directed at the whole group rather than myself. That includes the medical staff, conditioners, analysts and every single person involved in preparing the team, as well as obviously the players.
“It has been a hard season in many respects with a number of challenges, but for the most part we’ve met them. It has been a big collective thing and we’ve been able to marry a bit of stardust from overseas along with the core of our local boys, and it has blended together very well.
“Our captain Will Welch has been unbelievable in driving those standards, he has been absolutely incredible behind the scenes and he is one of those guys who just quietly does it rather than putting himself out into the public domain. Nobody is bigger than the group, even guys who have won stacks of trophies and international caps, and I think that’s at the heart of the culture that Will is driving.”
With Goneva and Sinoti grabbing many of the headlines on the back of their eye-catching performances, Richards added: “There’s a lot of talk about our wingers, and understandably so, but you’ve got to give them the platform to play.
“That’s where our forward carriers and our midfield runners have been so effective, giving them ball in hand with space and momentum on their side. Those linebreaks through the middle suck in defensive numbers and make gaps appear elsewhere, so it’s a real team effort even when it might look to some people like our wingers are doing it on their own.”
On the back of their best league finish in two decades Richards is adamant this moment will not pass by fleetingly, with the prospect of a Premiership final at Twickenham a week on Saturday against Saracens or Wasps.
“I talked when I first came here about a five-year plan in getting to the play-offs, but the game has evolved since then,” he said.
“The salary cap has gone up considerably, Europe has changed and the whole game has moved on massively. If I was to revise my prediction from when I first came here I’d probably say we’re slightly ahead of schedule, but having said that I’m quite happy with where we are.
“There’s no point in being in a semi-final unless you give it your all and play as well as you can do, then what will be will be.
“What we have done this season is set a bar for ourselves, and it’s about understanding how we’ve got here so that we can build on it next season. If we don’t learn from this year we’ll slide back down the table, and I don’t want us to do that.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Exeter Chiefs (Saturday, 3.30pm, Sandy Park, live on BT Sport)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Chris Harris
12 Josh Matavesi
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Toby Flood
9 Michael Young
1 Sam Lockwood
2 Kyle Cooper
3 Scott Wilson
4 Calum Green
5 Evan Olmstead
6 Mark Wilson (captain)
7 Gary Graham
8 Ally Hogg
16 Santiago Socino
17 Rob Vickers
18 David Wilson
19 Will Witty
20 Nili Latu
21 Sonatane Takulua
22 Juan Pablo Socino
23 Alex Tait
Referee: Matthew Carley