Trevor Davison makes his first Aviva Premiership start for Newcastle Falcons on Saturday as they travel to Sandy Park to take on champions Exeter Chiefs.
The 25-year-old prop was a summer signing from local club Blaydon who has featured from the bench in all five games this season, the former England Counties international coming in as the only change to the side which defeated London Irish 29-17 last Friday.
Fly-half Toby Flood could be set to make the first competitive appearance of his second spell at the club after re-joining the Falcons from Toulouse, the 60-times-capped England international having missed the opening chunk of the campaign with a hamstring injury.
Canada prop Jake Ilnicki is also poised to make his Newcastle debut, the former Northampton Saint named among the replacements for a Falcons side who go into round six placed second in the Aviva Premiership table.
Forwards coach Micky Ward said: “It’ll definitely be a physical challenge down there. We’ve already had a few of those this season but this is the one I’ve always been most excited for, and our pack has gone well so far. They’ve got the bit between their teeth and they’ve really been testing teams, but what better place to do it than away at the champions?
“Exeter have got some big lumps in their pack and everyone knows what they’re about, so we’ll have to be right on it. They love to drive line-outs, they love to scrummage and that’s the stuff we want to do as well. Our line-out and maul defence is something we really pride ourselves on, we’ve gone well there this season and I’m backing us to come through a big challenge there at the weekend.
“It’s the same in the scrum – Exeter like to keep the ball in rather than moving it quickly, and that’s a challenge we have to rise to. Those are the kinds of things that get Exeter into a game, their scrum, maul and line-out, and when you think back to their semi-final win over Saracens last season it was a scrum penalty, a line-out and a maul which did it for them. We’ve got to be the aggressors and the dominant force, and we’ve got to punch harder than them in terms of the impact we make in those areas.”
The Chiefs come into the game on the back of a defeat at Leicester Tigers, Ward saying: “They’ll be licking their wounds after last weekend, make no mistake. Their performance at Leicester wasn’t up to the really high standards they’ve set previously and we’re expecting the backlash. They won’t be a happy bunch and they’ll be wanting to make a statement, but we want to do likewise.
“We’ve been down there many times and not done what we wanted to do, and our statement would be to finish this block of six Aviva Premiership games on a high. To do that we need to go above them from a forwards physicality standpoint, and if we want to keep our run going that’s the mentality we need to have.
“Exeter like to challenge you not just from a physical contact point of view, but also from a running point of view. They keep the ball in play, they don’t give you a lot of line-outs and they just try and run you ragged. We’ve got to be able to get up off the ground or from a set-piece and get into our attacking shape time after time, and we need to challenge them with our attack. We can’t just shut up shop against a team like them, and during the times when Exeter have the ball we need to be fit enough to get into the defensive line and dominate those contacts.
“I’m confident in our game plan and the quality of work we’re doing in training, so the thing for us is translating it into the match scenario against one of the best teams around. It’s not a small thing we’re asking the lads to do, but I believe we can do it.”
Going into the game on the back of their best start to a Premiership season since 1997-8, the forwards coach said: “It’s good to see us doing what I’d hoped for a number of years we’d be doing. It has been building for a while now, we’ve been a little bit better each season and it’s pleasing to see things we’ve been doing in training working on the field at the moment.
“The lads who were already here are maturing as a group but the key for me is that the squad as a whole is stronger. We have depth in every position, and the team that we ran against our first team in training on Thursday would be easily capable of playing an Aviva Premiership game. We have internationals, experienced Premiership players and some great young talents who aren’t currently in the starting side, but what they’re doing every day in training is driving up the standards across the board because the lads currently holding the shirts know they have to be bang on the money to keep their place.
“As much as it’s not a massively changed team from last season guys know their place is genuinely up for grabs, and that’s probably not something we’ve been able to say for a while. The lads who are waiting in the wings are of similar quality, and that’s the thing we’ve been building. The players have always been trying but it’s a case of how much they are now being challenged every single day in training.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Exeter Chiefs (Saturday, 3pm, Sandy Park)
15 Alex Tait
14 DTH van der Merwe
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Vereniki Goneva
10 Craig Willis
9 Sonatane Takulua
1 Trevor Davison
2 Santiago Socino
3 Jon Welsh
4 Calum Green
5 Will Witty
6 Mark Wilson
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Nili Latu
16 Kyle Cooper
17 Rob Vickers
18 Jake Ilnicki
19 Sean Robinson
20 Ally Hogg
21 Sam Stuart
22 Toby Flood
23 Josh Matavesi
Referee: Andrew Jackson