The debate over the value of cup competitions is well worn in Newcastle this week after the early exit of the city’s football club, and it is rugby’s turn to state its case tonight when Newcastle Falcons host Brive.
The two sides are locked on 14 points at the top of Amlin Challenge Cup Pool C, only the eventual group winner going through to the quarter-finals of European rugby’s second-tier tournament.
Whatever the outcome this evening there is still a final round of matches to be played in a week’s time but, with Romanian and Italian cannon fodder lying in wait it is about as near as it gets to a decider.
Television executives have deemed it an occasion worthy of live transmission to the nation, although the mindset of the two competing teams has been outlined by the customary mass changes from the previous weekend’s league line-ups.
Brive include just a single player from the 15 who defeated Montpellier on a pudding of a pitch on Saturday night, the Falcons changing two-thirds of their side in the wake of Friday night’s Premiership wash-out against Sale Sharks.
The chief selling point of the competition, Heineken Cup qualification, now seems a dead duck thanks to the impasse over the future of the competition, and the Falcons have closed their North Terrace in anticipation of a small crowd.
It is not a match without merit, though, the Falcons in desperate need of a shot in the arm after six successive Premiership defeats. The groans against Sale said it all, especially at fly-half where neither Phil Godman nor Rory Clegg have made a sustained fist of it.
In from the wilderness comes Joel Hodgson (pictured left), loaned out to Rotherham and handed a start in a fresh-looking line-up which has earned the approval of veteran lock-forward Scott MacLeod.
The Scot, one of just five survivors from last week, said: “I am pleased to see Joely given a shot, to be totally honest.
“He has been down a bit, but he has worked hard and kept his head up. He has gone down to Rotherham and got a couple of man-of-the-match awards in the Championship, and he brings something a bit different to the table to what our other fly-halves do.”
With Samoan signing Sinoti Sinoti not registered for European competition teenage flyer Zach Kibirige gets a chance on the right wing, averaging two scores per match for both the Falcons and Blaydon during a try-laden festive period.
“Zach seems to score tries for fun, and he is a hot prospect,” said MacLeod, who partners Sean Tomes in the second-row. “Even as a team-mate I am looking forward to seeing how he goes against Brive, and I imagine a fair few of the fans will be as well.
“I doubt Brive will know much about him, and it is a great chance for him to take them by surprise.”
Signalling a more expansive approach, the former Edinburgh and Scarlets forward said: “We have got more of a licence to play rugby, and hopefully the weather will be a little bit better than it has been over the past fortnight. Having Joel at fly-half and Zach on the wing tallies in with that, and we want to play the kind of attractive game that people want to come and watch.
“It is good to see some young boys getting their opportunity, and for people to get a look at what they have got to their game.
“For someone like myself it is also a good chance.
“I have not played much lately, I have had a couple of little injuries and it is important those who have been given the start put their hand up.” Ruled out of much of the past month by a rib problem, the blond locks of the Hawick native were to the fore last Friday with an encouraging return in the line-out, where his athleticism and handling skills gave his side a different set-piece dimension.
Competition in the engine room has been tough with young buck Dom Barrow taking his first season by storm, veteran Italian Carlo del Fava doing the business consistently and Tomes and Fraser McKenzie both challenging.
At 34 and in the final year of his current contract chances could be few and far between for MacLeod, but none of the passion has diminished despite the downer of successive home losses to London Wasps and Sale.
“We sat down as a squad and talked about what we wanted to get out of those games – and what we got was certainly not what we talked about,” he admitted.
“It has been pretty frustrating.
“The weather has not helped, and it has not been a great spectacle for our supporters with the rain and high winds which have meant we have had to try and play a certain way.
“We didn’t play well enough to win the games, if we are honest, and we now have a match in a different competition to give ourselves a kind of fresh start.
“Hopefully that can help us turn the corner, and these next two games in Europe are both ones we need to target because the frustration for the whole club has been massive.”
Beaten 23-16 by Brive when the two teams met in central France in mid October, MacLeod sees no reason for that to discourage them this evening.
He insisted: “It is basically winner takes all in terms of who goes through to the quarter-finals, and that gives it a bit of an edge.
“Obviously any game is exciting to play in, but it was close between us in France and there doesn’t seem to be much between the two sides.”
The usual stereotypes around French rugby have each team pegged as forward-dominated scrappers who do not travel well, although the cosmopolitan make-up of Brive’s line-up and increased professionalism in approach render some of the old preconceptions outdated.
“The French are very passionate about their rugby, and hopefully we can create a good hostile atmosphere here at Kingston Park,” said MacLeod.
“We can just throw everything at them from the start.
“French teams have this reputation for battling, but if we can fly into them from the beginning and make them not want to be here we can make it a difficult night for them.
“It has to be all guns blazing, and everybody is keen. We need to fire right into them.”