FALCONS flanker Ben Woods believes he has a battle on his hands for the Newcastle number seven shirt, with a player back in action at openside for tonight’s European Challenge Cup-tie at Centransa El Salvador in Spain determined to make up for six weeks on the sidelines with a broken hand, writes ALAN HEDLEY.
He made a brief come-back appearance at the end of last week’s EDF Energy Cup win over Newport but starts this evening at Estadio Pepe Rojo (kick-off 4.30pm Spanish time) expecting the Spanish side to give it everything.
“The hand is still a bit sore, but I have the full range of movement and while it will be strapped up, it’ll be a fine,” said the former Durham University player. “It was good to get back after six weeks off and it was quite tight at the end the match against Newport – we nearly threw it away – but it was good to get back involved.
“I think the result was an indication of how far we have come in the last two or three years. There were only four or five points in the end but we won the game and they had a host of internationals in their side.”
The smart money is on a comfortable Newcastle win tonight, but both Woods and director of rugby John Fletcher are emphasising this is a potential banana skin.
“I’m not too sure it will be any easier than last week,” said Woods. “We don’t know anything about them and haven’t seen anything on them. They are bound to have a few Spanish internationals and they’re playing on their patch in front of their own fans. – it’s going to be tough. We are going into the unknown a bit and we have to focus on getting on our own game right.”
Woods’ pace to the breakdown and his ability to break has been missing from the Falcons’ gameplan but he reckons there is no certainty of tenure in the number seven shirt.
“So much changes in the six weeks you are missing and you have to get back into things quickly. I think there is pressure on me,” he said. “The lads who have come, especially Brent Wilson, who has been the stand-out player since he stepped in at seven, means we now have guys who we know we can play at seven and that is real pressure for me.”
With the season nicely poised for the Falcons – just below halfway in the Premiership and top of their group in the EDF Energy Cup – Woods reckons the Challenge Cup is right up there as a priority.
“This is massive for us,” he added. “The Challenge Cup is a route into the European Cup and it’s one of the three trophies you can win this year and it’s also, hopefully, a way of keeping a winning habit. We’ve done well in Challenge Cup – we’ve done reasonably well without going on to win the thing and we were frustrated again last year so were looking to clock up two wins to start this year’s campaign against Centransa and Brive.”
Newcastle travel to Valladolid with skipper Phil Dowson and England centre Jamie Noon joining Woods in a side showing nine changes. England Under-19 cap Alex Tait comes in at full-back for the rested Tom May while Noon returns at centre.
Dutchman Tim Visser comes in for John Rudd on the left wing while at scrum half James Grindal takes the place of Lee Dickson. In the back row Dowson starts in place of the rested Russell Winter, while Geoff Parling takes a breather as Woods starts at openside flanker.
NEWCASTLE FALCONS (away Centransa El Salvador): A Tait, O Phillips, M Tait, J Noon, T Visser, S Jones, J Grindal, J Golding, A Long, M Ward, A Perry, M Sorenson, B Wilson, B Woods, P Dowson (capt). Rep: J Williams, R Vickers, G Parling, E Williamson, L Dickson, J Rudd. T May.