It is a paradox of the LV= Cup that Newcastle Falcons are only fielding their strongest side now that they are knocked out of the competition, and a sign of the times in a changing rugby landscape.
A club reared on Cup finals either side of the Millennium and in Gosforth’s 1970s heyday is now unashamedly more concerned with Premiership survival, and making no attempt to call it anything other than what it is.
Last weekend going with youth in a 41-8 defeat at Saracens which ended their hopes of quarter-final qualification, director of rugby Dean Richards has put out virtually his entire frontline side tonight against Newport Gwent Dragons in what to all intents and purposes is a dead-rubber.
But the Kingston Park clash is being used as ideal preparation for a Premiership fixture list which next month sees them meeting Bath, Harlequins, Northampton and Leicester.
“As we have said all along the priority has been to remain in the Premiership, and the LV= Cup has never been at the top of our list,” said Richards, in typically forthright fashion.
“That is probably the same for a lot of the teams taking part, and it is a bit like the League Cup in football in some respects.
“Some people love it and some people don’t; some people have agendas and some clubs don’t place as big an emphasis on it. For us it isn’t at the top of the pecking order, but that doesn’t mean the games aren’t useful.”
The England and Lions great added: “The LV= Cup has been a great opportunity to blood players and to try some new things, so it has been all right from that perspective.
“A lot of the young boys did well, and the more you look at it the more you realise how promising it is from an academy perspective.
“George McGuigan in the front-row again was outstanding last weekend, Dan Temm and Ben Morris in the back-row did well, Andy Davies at scrum-half showed why we rate him so highly and Tom Penny in the centres showed glimpses of what he can do.
“We have a huge amount of respect for those guys coming through, and for our academy coaches it was a great chance for them to step up as well.
“You only learn by being thrust in at the deep end, and for them it was important. As part of their professional development it was a great opportunity, and hopefully they will have taken a lot from it.”
Going full bore against a Dragons side also already out of the quarter-final running, Richards hands a long-awaited debut to Argentina centre Gonzalo Tiesi after the hamstring injury he sustained against England in November.
Lock Dom Barrow (pictured left) also returns from a hamstring in search of the impressive form being shown before his lay-off, the Falcons boss changing all but one of last weekend’s selection as Oliver Tomaszczyk remains the sole survivor.
Back-rower Mark Wilson makes his 100th appearance in Newcastle colours after stepping up from Blaydon, Will Welch returning to captain the side.
“We will be approaching the game as if it was a Premiership match,” said Richards, his side win-less in the league since October but enjoying an 11-point buffer between themselves and Worcester at the bottom. “Forget the LV= Cup scenario, from a selection and preparation perspective we are treating it the same we would do for any game in the league.” Shorn of England Saxons tight-heads Scott Wilson and Kieran Brookes, who line up against Ally Hogg’s Scotland A side this evening in Glasgow, Richards said: “It has left us a little bit short, but it is something we will accommodate. We wish the guys all the best on international duty, and to have two tight-head props both involved for the Saxons is great for the club.
“Had Kieran not been fit I have a feeling they might well have looked to Oliver Tomaszczyk, and from a tight-head perspective it is looking good for us right now. The boys are turning up every week and really doing the business.” The Dragons’ last visit to Kingston Park came in a tetchy Heineken Cup pool decider back in 2005, when a man-of-the-match performance from stand-in fly-half Mark Wilkinson secured a quarter-final place after a bad-tempered build-up.
There have been no such rumblings almost a decade on, Richards stating: “The Dragons are a good side, and they play with a lot of ambition.
“That will be nice, and they will throw it around from anywhere. They are well-drilled up front, and Lyn Jones as their coach will always spring surprises. He is a great character of the game, and we have a huge amount of respect for both him and his side. They have pushed a lot of teams close this year, and they are a food team on paper. It will be a hard game.”
The director of rugby is also hoping for a firmer surface thanks to the cover and heaters which have been on the Kingston Park pitch all week.
He said: “We had the tent earlier on in the season, and it worked wonders. It dried the pitch up really well, and the only problem came immediately before kick-off when we removed the tent and the heavens opened.
“That was just a case of unlucky timing and there is not a great deal you can do about that, but had we not had the cover on I think it would have been twice as bad. It is a great facility to have in protecting the surface from the frost and the rain. It is there for a reason, and it does work.”
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, N Cato, G Tiesi, A Powell, S Sinoti, P Godman, W Fury; R Vickers, M Thompson, O Tomaszczyk, D Barrow, F McKenzie, W Welch (captain), A Saull, M Wilson. Replacements: S Lawson, F Montanella, G Strain, S MacLeod, C York, C Pilgrim, R Clegg, J Helleur.
NEWPORT GWENT DRAGONS: D Evans, W Harries, A Hughes, L Robling, H Amos, K Burton, J Evans; N Williams, H Gustafson, F Chaparro, M Screech, R Sidoli (captain), J Groves, D Waters, I Jones. Replacements: T Rhys Thomas, A Coundley, D Way, C Hill, N Cudd, W Evans, D Jones, A Smith.
Kick-off: 7.45pm. Referee: D Jones (Wales)