Newcastle Falcons team to face Toulon
French prop Sami Mavinga starts for Newcastle Falcons on Sunday as they return to his homeland to face Toulon in the opening round of the Heineken Champions Cup.
Mavinga joins a freshened-up front row as Newcastle play their first Champions Cup game for 14 seasons, joining Kyle Cooper and David Wilson in the starting spots as part of a side containing 10 changes from their last outing at Sale Sharks.
A number of those are enforced, captain Will Welch suffering an ankle injury which is expected to sideline him for the next couple of months, fly-half Toby Flood missing out due to a shoulder injury and Vereniki Goneva being sidelined following a head knock.
Alex Tait comes in at full-back and Tom Arscott replaces Goneva on the wing, Tom Penny slotting in at outside centre after impressing from the bench in recent weeks while Joel Hodgson takes the No 10 shirt. Will Witty and Glen Young start in the second row, the only other change coming in the back-row where Fiji No 8 Nemani Nagusa is handed a first team debut.
The former Aurillac player scored on his first pre-season outing against Doncaster after joining the club late in the summer, and was again on the score-sheet during his comeback game in the Premiership Rugby Shield win over Northampton just under a fortnight ago.
Portugese international centre Pedro Bettencourt is poised to make his first team debut as a replacement after joining from French club Carcassonne, more than half of the Falcons’ match-day squad having come through the club’s academy – eight in the starting XV and a further four on the bench.
Newcastle and Toulon have met just twice in European competition, both games during the 2011-12 Challenge Cup group stage when the Falcons triumphed 6-3 at Kingston Park Stadium before going on to lose the return leg.
Director of rugby Dean Richards said: “Playing rugby in the south of France on these big European weekends is something a bit special, and the players will respond to that. The atmosphere in Toulon is as good as any, and we just want to get out there and enjoy it.
“Whether they’ll be on a similar sort of footing this time round as when they were flying high a couple of seasons ago remains to be seen, because they’re third from bottom in the Top 14 and struggling a little bit. We’ll see what happens in that regard, but on paper they’re a fantastic team. They spend probably 20 million more than us so you’d expect them to be, but for whatever reason they’re not performing at the moment.
“Toulon are undoubtedly a good side when they turn it on, they can be outstanding at times and we need to make sure we’re on top of our own game. We know where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are and it will be a very interesting contest. If we’re on song and we play well I see no reason why we can’t come away with the win.”
Explaining his selection, Richards said: “Toby Flood will be out for a little while, Will Welch will be long term unfortunately but it’s just one of those things. That’s the nature of the sport, you get injuries during the season and it’s an opportunity for the guys who are coming in. It’s not a case of focusing on the domestic competition over the European, because we believe we have a strong enough squad to do both.
“There are certain elements of the team which are fatigued after playing all six Premiership games on the trot, and there’s a safeguarding issue in how we manage the boys who have played a lot of minutes. There’s also the number of injuries we picked up over the past few weeks which we have to consider, and in addition there are some changes which are just made purely on merit. Everybody has to fight for their place, and ultimately if they don’t perform then there will be changes in selection.”
Keen to minimise the number of penalties and yellow cards picked up by his side during last week’s loss at Sale Sharks, the Falcons boss added: “You look at the penalty count of 16-2 which is pretty one-sided, and we for the life us can’t understand why.
“That was one of the things which really hurt us, but clearly we’ve got to tighten up our discipline. You’re always going to concede tries when you go down to 13 men, and we’d been controlling large parts of the game up until that point.
“That side of things is obviously disappointing but at the same time we’re not going to dwell on it, and it’s now about finding ways in which we can be more disciplined in the eyes of the officials. The week before we had only given away five penalties, so I don’t know how you can go from that to 16 in the space of a week.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Toulon (Sunday, 4.15pm French time, 3.15pm UK time, Stade Felix Mayol)
15 Alex Tait
14 Tom Arscott
13 Tom Penny
12 Johnny Williams
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Joel Hodgson
9 Michael Young
1 Sami Mavinga
2 Kyle Cooper
3 David Wilson
4 Will Witty
5 Glen Young
6 Mark Wilson (captain)
7 Gary Graham
8 Nemani Nagusa
16 George McGuigan
17 Adam Brocklebank
18 Logovi’i Mulipola
19 Ryan Burrows
20 Callum Chick
21 Sonatane Takulua
22 Brett Connon
23 Pedro Bettencourt
Referee: Ben Whitehouse (Wales).