Newcastle Falcons can secure themselves a promotion play-off semi-final with victory tonight over Cornish Pirates, who make the longest sporting trip of any professional team in mainland England. Mark Smith previews the Championship clash.
BY 9 o’clock this evening Newcastle Falcons could be 20 points clear at the top of the league, securing their promotion play-off place with six games left to go.
What they hope will be the briefest of stays in English rugby’s answer to purgatory still hinges on the booby trap of knockout action come May, but the manner in which they have so far breezed through the best the division has to offer does make one wonder as to the point of it all.
Winning all 15 of their league outings, another six in the cup and even beating a whole country in November, Dean Richards’ charges are just keeping their heads down and doing what they need to do.
Tonight they will look to repel the Pirates of Penzance.
Cornwall’s flagship team have been perennial play-off contenders but this time sit outside of the top four comfort zone, if only by one point and one place.
Premiership scouts have long known the merits of the men from the Mennaye, Rob Cook, Matt Hopper and Dave Ward among the alumni now making waves in the top flight. But they travel north this evening shorn of key men.
The 966-mile round trip has been made without talismanic scrum-half Gavin Cattle, chipping and chivvying his pack round the circuit for the best part of a decade, while the tighthead ballast of Alan Paver is also notable by its injury-enforced absence.
Ex-Falcon Tom Bedford returns to the club where he spent the back half of last season, while former Durham University openside Phil Burgess offers a fleet-of-foot threat.
The Falcons, in contrast, have stability – that rarest of sporting commodities.
Naming the same backline for only the third time this season, their director of rugby said: “We are absolutely delighted to be in a position to do that.
“I thought Michael Tait played his part last week against Moseley after getting his opportunity at outside centre.
“He deserves his start again on the back of that. I have been pleased with his progress, and against Cornish Pirates hopefully we can see a continuation.”
The director of rugby added: “Our preparation has been good. We have had a seven-day build-up after playing Moseley last Friday, we have another seven-day week going into the Rotherham match next weekend and a sense of normality seems to have returned to the schedule. There are no short or long weeks to factor into the timetable, and it is nice to have that consistency.
“It is not something we will enjoy later in the season when midweek games come into the reckoning, but for the meantime it is helpful and gives us the chance to put in some good work during the build-up.”
Hooker Rob Vickers misses out tonight after pulling his calf, Matt Thompson taking his place in a pack which also sees Grant Shiells in for Jonny Golding at loosehead, James Hudson (pictured far left) for James Goode in the second-row and Mark Wilson for Taiasina Tu’ifua at blindside.
Cornish Pirates have plenty of changes of their own, with London Welsh loan winger Ashley Smith making his first start of the season, while Aaron Penberthy comes in at fly-half.
Former London Irish lock Gary Johnson skippers the side following last week’s home loss against London Scottish, head coach Ian Davies admitting they have their work cut out. He said: “Playing the Falcons this season, and especially away from home, provides a big challenge. But we will just get up there and play, and hopefully conjure up a performance to put the disappointment of last weekend behind us.”
Hopeful of significantly better conditions than the storm which greeted the two teams on the Cornish coast during September’s 25-3 away triumph, Richards said: “I know this is a dangerous thing to say in the North East, but it looks like we might have turned the corner with regards to the weather.
“You always expect a little bit of a backlash towards the end of February, but on the whole the ground is firming up. Given the amount of rain it has had over the past few months it will be sodden for a while to come yet, but it is slowly but surely getting harder and looking better all the time.
“Assuming the rain stays away between now and kick-off we should have a nice firm track tonight, and I am sure both teams as well as the supporters would be delighted if that proved to be the case.”
Newcastle Falcons: T Catterick, A Higgins, M Tait, J Helleur, R Shortland, J Gopperth, R Lawson; G Shiells, M Thompson, O Tomaszczyk, S MacLeod, J Hudson, M Wilson, W Welch (captain), A Hogg. Replacements: M Mayhew, J Hall, J Goode, T Tu’ifua, W Fury, J Hodgson, A Crockett.
Cornish Pirates: W Davies, B Mercer, G Pointer, T Bedford, A Smith, A Penberthy, T Kessell; R Storer, D Semmens, P Joyce, G Johnson (captain), D Barry, A Cheesman, P Burgess, J Tyas. Replacements: P Andrew, O Hambly, B Prescott, D Lyons, K Marriott, R Elloway, T Riley.
Referee: Steve Lee Kick-off: 7pm