Newcastle Falcons travel to Bath today with memories of a 21-0 drubbing on the Premiership’s opening day. All apart from Jamie Helleur, that is.
The Samoan international was there in body, if not spirit, as the Falcons fell at a rainswept Kingston Park – carried from the field when a bell-ringer of a concussion left him no recollection of the evening.
“It was more a bang to the neck and a whiplash reaction, rather than getting whacked in the head or anything like that,” joked the Samoan, who starts at the Recreation Ground this afternoon in one of two changes from the side which defeated Newport Gwent Dragons eight days ago.
“We knew they were going to come here under our old coaches Gary Gold and Mike Ford, be direct and have a very simple game-plan; forwards coming straight at us and a big kick-chase. They did that, and unfortunately I was on the wrong end of a hit from Matt Banahan.”
Their first opponent before a ball has even been kicked will be the weather, with much of the West Country still battling severe floods.
Bath’s pitch has been under cover all week and the club yesterday issued a statement saying the game was on as it stands, albeit with the caveat that water levels in the adjacent River Avon are perilously high and with further downpours expected to come.
Should the 3pm kick-off get the green light, Helleur says his side have an inside track on what Bath will throw at them, head coach Ford having marshalled the Falcons during their last relegation fight in 2012.
“Having worked directly under Fordy does give us a good insight into how Bath will play, what to expect from them and where we may be able to exploit their weaknesses,” said the hard-hitting midfield man who missed 15 weeks of the season with a niggling hamstring injury.
“I found Fordy to be a good coach during the time we worked with him and it is going to be hard to pick apart his gameplan, but we have just got to want it more than them.”
Newcastle face a bolstered Bath line-up, fly-half George Ford, centre Kyle Eastmond and wing Anthony Watson all released from the England squad and Nathan Catt returning from England Saxons duty.
Clermont-bound Nick Abendanon starts at full-back, ex-Newcastle scrum-half Peter Stringer named in the side and former Falcons Micky Young and Ross Batty among the replacements. Making his Premiership debut for the Falcons alongside Helleur is Gonzalo Tiesi, the Argentina centre who has been injured for most of the past two months after tearing his hamstring against England.
Among the star performers on his debut last Friday, Helleur said: “Of course there is a part of you thinking this is another guy competing for my position, and that is just human nature.
“But you need a squad to compete through the whole year, and we all become brothers. That is the way you have got to look at it, and it means you have got to up your game to make sure you stay in the team or the match-day group. That competition ultimately breeds success, and it is great to have Gonzo here. Friday was the first time I have seen him playing in person, and he did really well. Obviously he has a lot of experience with Argentina and around the European club game, and it can only be good to have a talent like that available.”
Scott MacLeod’s return to the second row is the only other change from the four-try triumph, only the second time this season the Falcons have chalked up an attacking bonus point.
“It has boosted the guys’ confidence a bit, and winning breeds winning,” said Helleur, cautioning against getting carried away with one result but admitting it had rejuvenated a club without a league win since October.
“There is nothing wrong with getting excited, and it has definitely brought a tone of change around the place.
“We have just got to keep it going now, and the wins are there for us. We have rarely been beaten by a lot this season.
“The opportuities have been there for us, and we have almost given them away.
“We need to be grabbing those, but there has been a positive mood this week and I just want to see it going through until the end of the year.”
He added: “The forecast down in Bath looks pretty poor with all the flooding in the area, but we are prepared for that and our own pitch has also been hammered by the elements. I can’t see the Rec being much worse than Kingston Park, so having a home game last week has prepared us perfectly for Bath.
“I wouldn’t say those conditions give us a particular advantage, because we are a smaller, fitter team. We perform better with a dry ball and we want to play exciting rugby.
“We don’t want to be hampered by running into big defensive forwards, so a faster game suits us a lot more.”
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, N Cato, G Tiesi, J Helleur, S Sinoti, P Godman, W Fury; R Vickers, M Thompson, O Tomaszczyk, S MacLeod, F McKenzie, W Welch (captain), A Saull, M Wilson. Replacements: G McGuigan, F Montanella, K Brookes, S Tomes, A Hogg, C Pilgrim, R Clegg, A Powell.
BATH: N Abendanon, A Watson, O Devoto, K Eastmond, M Banahan, G Ford, P Stringer; N Catt, R Webber, J Orlandi, S Hooper (captain), D Day, M Garvey, F Louw, C Fearns. Replacements: R Batty, A Perenise, K Palma-Newport, A Fa’osiliva, L Houston, M Young, G Henson, H Agulla.
Referee: T Wigglesworth. Kick-off: 3pm.