NEWCASTLE Falcons boss John Fletcher is warning his players European Challenge Cup opponents Cetransa El Salvador will be no pushovers.
Newcastle travel to Valladolid to take on the Spanish minnows tomorrow buoyed by the return of captain Phil Dowson, as well as England centre Jamie Noon and flanker Ben Woods in a side showing nine changes from that which beat Newport Gwent Dragons in last Saturday’s EDF Energy Cup-tie.
In theory, it should be a comfortable win for Newcastle, but Cetransa are the Spanish champions and Fletcher is adamant the Falcons must take the match at Estadio Pepe Rojo (kick-off 4.30pm Spanish time) as seriously as they would for any Premiership clash.
“On paper you can say this should probably be our easiest game of the season, but this team are no mugs and they will be playing for the whole of Spanish rugby when they meet us,” he said. “They gave Harlequins a hell of a scare a couple of years ago, losing by just over one score, and they will be playing with a lot of passion on what is a huge occasion for them in front of their own crowd.
“We are taking the game very seriously and have chosen what we believe is a strong side. You have to respect the opposition and I think our team selection for this weekend reflects the respect we have for Cetransa El Salvador.
“We have huge competition for places now, everyone is aware of that, and Brive at home next Thursday will be a huge game for us so we have taken the opportunity to rest one or two guys who have played every game for us so far this season. Those who have come in this week are now playing for their places, and that is a healthy position to be in as a coach having such quality at your disposal.
“Everyone has to earn the right to wear the Falcons first-team shirt. It’s not something I dish out cheaply and I think all 22 players involved this weekend have earned that right.
“We haven’t made wholesale changes, we have selected our international players and not really experimented in too many areas. I am keen to see Alex Tait operate from the start at full-back, but apart from that one selection we pretty much know what we’re getting.”
Nevertheless, Newcastle do show nine changes from that which beat Newport and it promises to be a big day for the Tait family as brothers Mathew and Alex start together in Falcons colours for the first time ever – England Under-19 cap Alex coming in for the rested Tom May at full back while World Cup star Mathew continues his club comeback at outside centre.
Noon returns after knee ligament damage with Steve Jones shifting one place to fly-half as Toby Flood recovers from an operation for a minor tear to his scrotum suffered last weekend against the Dragons. Dutchman Tim Visser comes in for John Rudd on the left wing while at scrum-half James Grindal takes the place of Lee Dickson. A whole new front row sees Jon Golding, Andy Long and Micky Ward take over from Joe McDonnell, Matt Thompson and David Wilson. In the back row Dowson starts in place of the rested Russell Winter, while Geoff Parling also takes a breather as Woods starts at openside and Brent Wilson switches to blindside flanker.
Fletcher added: “Our strategy is based on a low error count with lots of team involvement.
“As always the first aim is to win the game, and to win well. If we perform well then the points should take care of themselves. The seedings for this tournament are based on tries so that is something we obviously have an eye on and we are going to Spain to score as many tries as possible.
“The reports we have had are that Cetransa El Salvador are a good club with excellent facilities and they play rugby for the right reasons. Sadly, our boys won’t get to sample the nightlife too much because we have a match on Thursday against Brive and a very short turnaround, but we will buy into the spirit of the occasion after the match and look forward to receiving a warm welcome.”
Cetransa will be playing with a lot of passion on what is a huge occasion for them in front of their crowd