When your director of rugby refers to the Amlin Challenge Cup as "the European break" in his pre-game notes, you know where his priorities are.
Nonetheless, Newcastle Falcons’ much-changed line-up dispatched yesterday’s Italian visitors efficiently enough. In doing so they put themselves joint-top of Pool C with Brive, the identity of the quarter-finalists all but certain to be decided when the French side visit Kingston Park in mid-January.
The Challenge Cup is a competition English clubs have already said they will not play in next season, and for all the tears shed over the demise of the elite Heineken Cup there have been few such outpourings of emotion for its unloved offspring. Matches against Welsh and South African opposition seem the most likely option for England’s top 12 clubs to fill the nine vacant weekends next season, by which time the Falcons hope to be further down the evolutionary carriageway.
While never a genuine contest in terms of the identity of the winner, yesterday’s visit of Calvisano did provide a number of Dean Richards’ fringe figures with a chance to advance their claims for Premiership selection.
The director of rugby said: “I am pleased with the result, but more pleased with the youngsters who came into the side and played their hearts out.
“The guys are delighted that we won and scored five tries, but at the same time frustrated because there were probably five more that went missing. Calvisano scored a couple when the game opened up, which was disappointing, but the overall performance in some ways was quite accomplished.
“In terms of that all-round game we still have to produce the goods in the right area of the field a little bit better than we are doing at the moment, and had we done that we would have won by a lot more.”
Newcastle led on nine minutes when fly-half Rory Clegg exploited a dominant scrum by slotting a penalty from the right, opposite number Kelly Haimona pulling the hosts back with a well-struck effort of his own before Clegg’s second nudged his side ahead once more. Ryan Shortland’s foray down the left wing was about as close as they had come to a try in a scrappy opening quarter, the Kiwi hauled out on the 22 after running away from his support.
Clegg spent much of the afternoon ignoring pleas from the terraces to run the ball from inside his own half, sticking to the territorial script and putting his side in position to launch an attack. It finally paid dividends on 24 minutes when teenage flyer Zach Kibirige used his raw pace and natural finishing ability to speed through a gap down the right wing, leaving his tackler for dust as Clegg added the conversion.
Within two minutes they had their second try, Noah Cato timing his support run from full-back to perfection.
The former Northampton and Saracens man neatly stepped inside his opposite number, but the scoring continued at frenetic pace as sloppy offside on their own 22 handed Calvisano a penalty which they quickly tapped.
Sensing a try-scoring opportunity, Haimona grubbered in behind the defence for left-wing Michele Visentin to dot down, the Kiwi stand-off missing with his touchline conversion.
Three tries in as many minutes was never a rate that was going to last, Newcastle’s 20-8 lead staying intact until half time as visiting scrum-half Simon Picone took a 10-minute breather for hands in the ruck.
The Falcons’ dominance continued early into the second half when an unstoppable scrum down the left produced a penalty try, and they had the bonus point on 50 minutes as a Fraser McKenzie line-out steal anda bouncing ball in the Calvisano 22 saw Chris York in down the right.
Joel Hodgson entered the fray for a long-overdue 25 minutes of rugby, his side’s scrum continuing to make mincemeat of Calvisano’s limp forward eight.
But it was the visitors who found their way to the try-line when South African No 8 Braam Steyn broke through a gap down the right for a converted score.
Chris Pilgrim impressed on a rare appearance, his line-break setting in motion an 80-metre attack which ended with Cato’s second try in the right corner, Pilgrim tapping a quick penalty and floating the ball wide.
Hodgson’s search for minutes was thwarted by a questionable sin-binning, the time ticking by without further incident as both sides prepare to do it all again in Italy on Saturday.
Richards said: “It will be a different kettle of fish over there, and Italian teams tend to lift their game at home.”