DESPITE making eight changes, Newcastle Falcons have still played a pretty strong hand for this afternoon’s trip to Newport, writes MARK SMITH.
The Rodney Parade encounter is the first of back-to-back clashes against the Welsh Premiership outfit, who remain the Falcons’ closest challengers in the British and Irish Cup.
Only the eight group winners progress through to the quarter-finals of the competition, with Newport currently unbeaten after seeing off Irish province Connacht and Welsh neighbours Cross Keys.
Newcastle have also put away the same opposition, albeit on both occasions with four-try bonus points into the bargain to leave themselves two points clear of the Black and Ambers. Director of rugby Dean Richards has, as expected, used the competition to give game-time to some of his fringe figures, although, true to his stated aim of going unbeaten all season, he has still offered up a power-packed XV.
Samoan centre Jamie Helleur captains the side with Ally Hogg rested up, while burgeoning prospect Scott Wilson starts at tight-head following James Hall’s suspension for punching against Plymouth eight days ago.
A rejigged back-row sees Richard Mayhew and Taiasina Tu’ifua brought into the starting line-up, while Welshman James Goode earns a start in his homeland in place of Scott MacLeod after a heavy recent work-load for the Hawick native. Loose-head prop Grant Shiells has shrugged off a knock to his glutes to pack down in the front-row, where he is joined by Kiwi hooker Michael Mayhew, who comes in for Matt Thompson.
In the backs Jimmy Gopperth drops to full-back, allowing Joel Hodgson a much-needed crack at fly-half, looking to build on his impressive showing there during last month’s victory over the Tongan national side.
Suka Hufanga comes on for Alex Crockett at outside centre, with the only other change seeing Rory Lawson replacing Warren Fury at scrum-half.
On the bench James Hudson makes an eagerly-awaited return from injury, while semi-pro opponents Newport include 17-year-old Ollie Griffiths and a further three 18-year-olds in a youthful line-up. While the form-book suggests a routine win for Newcastle, they should beware the hand of history as Newport, in almost identical circumstances, defeated Exeter Chiefs back in 2009.
Exeter, at the time, were unbeaten at the top of the Championship with 11 wins from 11, but were sent back down to Devon with a shock 21-14 defeat.
Newcastle Falcons: J Gopperth, L Fielden, S Hufanga, J Helleur (captain), A Higgins, J Hodgson, R Lawson; G Shiells, M Mayhew, S Wilson, S Tomes, J Goode, C York, R Mayhew, T Tu’ifua. Replacements: M Thompson, O Tomaszczyk, J Hudson, M Wilson, W Fury, W Luveniyali, J Fitzpatrick.
Newport: J Leadbeater, E Frewen, G O’Driscoll, A Davies, A Hewitt, S Sneddon, R Downes; D Pattison, R Prosser, D Mathews, D Rosser, A Frampton, B Lampitt, C Attwell (captain), C Everett. Replacements: A Brown, J Jeune, L Randall, O Griffiths, D Franchi, T Hancock, A Quick.
Referee: Eddie Hogan-O’Connell (Ireland).