Phil Godman and Will Welch have been passed fit for Newcastle Falcons as they make the longest trip of any professional sporting team in mainland England, facing Exeter Chiefs tomorrow.
Godman left the field a quarter of the way through last weekend’s 25-10 Amlin Challenge Cup victory at Italian side Calvisano, having been felled in the act of tackling opposite number Kelly Haimona.
The Scottish veteran battled on for a few minutes before being removed as a precaution, but has been given the thumbs-up for tomorrow’s 3pm kick-off in Devon despite taking a bang to his upper body.
The same goes for captain Will Welch who left the fray around the hour mark with a stringer after being cleared out at a midfield ruck, director of rugby Dean Richards saying: “Will and Phil are both available, and will be involved at Exeter.”
Whether or not that means a start at Sandy Park remains to be seen, Richards signalling a “horses for courses” selection against a big pack in what are forecast to be awful playing conditions.
That could mean more bulk on the blind-side flank, where Welch started on Saturday, although one man likely to come back into the fray is centre Danny Barnes.
The Irishman missed back-to-back ties against Calvisano due to not being registered for Europe – a legacy of the injury he was recovering from at the time the Challenge Cup squad was selected.
While the Falcons were racking up eight tries and nine points against Italian opposition in Europe’s second-tier tournament, the Chiefs have been slugging it out against the sporting and financial might of Heineken Cup champions Toulon. Beaten 14-9 in Devon and then 32-20 on the French Riviera, Richards said: “For Exeter it will have been useful having two intense games like that, because it keeps their momentum going. You want to be pitting your wits against the best every week, which is what they are doing. The only difficulty comes if they get injuries as a result of those battles, so I guess we shall see how that has affected them when the teams are announced.”
Phil Dollman (ankle) and Tom Johnson (shoulder) were both casualties last weekend in France, a game fly-half Gareth Steenson missed with a neck injury.
Chiefs coach Rob Baxter has backed the Ulsterman to return in time for tomorrow, Richards quick to sing the praises of a side now established in the top half of the Premiership following their promotion three-and-a-half years ago. The former England and Lions great said: “Exeter are a good, well-organised side.
“They don’t have any shirkers at all, and they are a group of players who go out there and perform for each other on a weekly basis.
“Everybody puts a shift in for them. When you analyse your opposition going into a game you are looking for weak links to exploit, but every single one of the Exeter players goes out there with that willingness to play for each other. That is all you can ask as a director of rugby, and it shows in their performances.”
Having evolved from a grinding maul and one-out runners into more of an all-court threat, Richards added: “They are very workmanlike and don’t perhaps have a lot of individual stars, but the consequence of that is that they understand each other’s game very well and they do what is required of them.
“Their results have been good, and that is a large part of the reason why.
“As much as everyone talks about their forward pack, Exeter have also got a really good back three.
“They play a little bit more of an expansive game now than they did when they first came up, although the way the weather is looking for this weekend we could well see it being a tighter affair.”
With 370 miles separating the two venues, Richards insisted the debilitating effects of travel would be minimised despite having had a four-flight slog to and from northern Italy last weekend. The director of rugby said: “It is not quite as far as Cornish Pirates last season, which takes some beating! In terms of Premiership rugby it is the greatest distance that any team will cover, but thankfully there is a direct flight which should allow us to go in without the travel affecting us.
“We know it is a difficult place to go to, and there are not many sides get much joy down there. In that sense we have nothing to lose, so we will just turn up focused and see what happens. This is a massive three weeks for us with hosting Wasps and Sale over the festive period. Tickets are flying out of the door for that Wasps game, which looks like being a big attendance, and this is a really crucial time.”