English centre Andy Vilk has warned Newcastle Falcons not to expect an easy ride when Italian outfit Calvisano pitch up at Kingston Park on Sunday for Amlin Challenge Cup duty.
The two teams will play each other twice inside a week with the return leg at Stadio Peroni a week on Saturday and, despite their semi-pro status, Vilk says they should not be underestimated.
That much was proven earlier in the tournament when they drew at home to Brive, their English star stating:“We are sitting at second in the Italian League this year and we were a bit unlucky to lose to the champions Mogliano with the last kick of the game.
“Rovigo, who are top of the league this season, drew against us with the final kick, and had things gone our way we would have been comfortably at the top.
“As it is we are going OK in second, but we have a new coach this season and we are playing good rugby.”
Giving an insight into what Newcastle can expect, the former Northampton and Sale Sharks man said: “Our new coach is Gianluca Guidi and he has coached a lot of the Italian national age-group sides.
“This is his first club role but he has a good coaching pedigree and it has been good playing the kind of rugby he empowers us to play.
“He is very much about alternating our style. We are now playing much more what we see, keeping our options open and playing with the ball in hand.
“When chips and cross-field kicks are on we are going for them and it is all about the players expressing ourselves on the field.”
Calvisano are no strangers to European rugby, having been regulars in the Heineken Cup before the restructuring of Italian club rugby which saw Benetton Treviso and Aironi (now Zebre) playing in the Celtic League.
That left the rest of the pack cut adrift in the Eccellenza league, Vilk explaining: “Officially we are semi-professional but we still train as any professional club would do.
“We have three sessions a day – morning, lunchtime and evening. We don’t train in the afternoons because the idea is to give the players the opportunity to study, but it is a real rugby environment.
“We do not have the strength in depth the fully-professional clubs would enjoy, but in the Eccellenza league we are strong and are regularly among the top sides.”
Having spent four seasons in Italy, he added: “I first came out here in 2008, and played three seasons with Benetton Treviso.
“The last of those was the first year they had in the Celtic League, but then I came back to England to play for the national sevens side.
“I was a little bit old for sevens, which is a young mans’ game, and when the opportunity came to return to Italy we jumped at the chance.
“My wife is English and we don’t have Italian ancestry or anything like that. Both our daughters were born in Italy, we were married here and we just love it. We feel really strong ties to the place now and when I came back to England for that season playing sevens, I did miss Italy.
“The people are fantastic, although it is hard not to constantly eat when the food is so nice.
“Calvisano itself is a very small place, and nearby there are places like Brescia and Desenzano, which is a beautiful town on Lake Garda. We do have our loyal fans who like to make a noise and any Newcastle supporters who do make the trip out here next week for the return leg will have a great time.”
Equating the level of his side’s rugby to that he left behind, Vilk said: “It is very difficult to say where we would be in the English structure, but we have held our own against the teams in the Challenge Cup.
“Realistically I am not going to say we would be competitive in the English Premiership - our level would probably more be something like the Championship.
“We do have good players, though. One of our young centres Tommaso Castello has just come back from a long-term knee reconstruction and he is a very strong defender as well as someone who can get us over the gain-line.
“Our winger Michele Visentin is a player who can create something from nothing with the ball in hand, and our South African No 8 Braam Steyn is another who stands out at our level.
“The Challenge Cup is a great stage for us and coming to somewhere like Newcastle will be a real highlight of the season.”
Meanwhile, Falcons No 8 Ally Hogg has spoken of his pride at reaching 100 appearances in Newcastle colours, having hit the milestone on Sunday’s 35-9 defeat to Harlequins.
The Scot said: “I have been at the club for three and a half years, during which time I have not missed many games.
“It is a nice landmark to have reached and I feel I have a bit of loyalty to the club.
“I enjoy representing them immensely, and that has not changed one bit since I got here. Jimmy Gopperth got his 100th game last season away at Cross Keys, so having a Premiership game against one of the top teams was a nice way for me to do it.”
Former Edinburgh man Hogg added: “I didn’t know much about Newcastle before I got here, although I knew I wanted a change in environment and a new challenge.
“Even in three and a half years there have been major ups and downs and the people have been fantastic. My daughter was born in Newcastle and I feel at home here.”