Newcastle Falcons have made three changes to their side for Friday’s European Challenge Cup trip to Welsh side, Dragons (kick-off 7.30pm).
Fly-half Joel Hodgson comes in for fly-half Craig Willis as the unbeaten Falcons look to strengthen their position at the top of Pool One, Newcastle having beaten Dragons 32-27 at Kingston Park in October.
Zach Kibirige makes his first start of the season as he replaces Alex Tait on the wing, Sean Robinson coming into the second row in place of Calum Green as the Falcons look to build on last weekend’s 52-24 home win over Bordeaux-Begles.
Stressing the importance of a solid mental approach, Newcastle defence coach John Wells said: “It’s the Dragons’ Cup final in that it’s their big chance to reel us in at the top of the group, and we have to deal with that against a good team.
“Nobody for one second is suggesting it will be an easy game, and a lot of it is down to the mind. We know we’re a strong enough side that if we get things together we can do well, but it’s all in the psychology of it. We flew out against Bordeaux with the blood pumping and knowing we were up against a top team, but if we think it’s just going to fall into place for us in Newport we’ll end up with our pants round our ankles.
“If we turn up on Friday with the same will and the same urgency we had last weekend then we’ll get the result, so it’s all down to whether we want it enough and whether we can show the right frame of mind for that challenge.”
Wells added: “In professional rugby the honest reality is that there isn’t a massive difference in ability levels. The biggest difference between the teams who do it every week and those who do it occasionally is the mental approach, and it’s human nature that people can sometimes let themselves down in that regard. The teams who do well are the ones who can get themselves into the zone, knowing their preparation has been spot-on and being ready to really execute their game plan.
“If you go out there assuming that it’s just going to work for you and having a half-arsed approach to your prep – it’s been a long bus journey and it’s close to Christmas and all that – if you start making those kinds of excuses then you’re going to be second best.”
Taking limited ammunition from his side’s narrow win over the Dragons in October’s home leg, the long-time Leicester and England coach said: “We didn’t play well that day against the Dragons and it was a very downbeat dressing room afterwards, even though we’d won the game.
“As a result of injuries and unavailability the Dragons were without a lot of their main men, and I honestly think we should have done better. It was important we got the win and we did manage to achieve that, but both teams have moved on from that day and I’d expect a much more high-quality game.”
Keen to kick on from last weekend’s eight-try triumph over Bordeaux-Begles, Wells added: “We’re a team who want to try and play whenever we can.
“Bordeaux had been a bit more narrow in their focus during the Top 14 but all credit to them, they came over here with a positive mind-set and tried to attack. What that meant was that gaps opened up for us, but that was probably two-thirds of their regular league side and it was a decent performance from us.
“We’ve probably struggled a little bit for forward carriers recently who will run through brick walls, but in Sam Lockwood, Ryan Burrows and Ben Sowrey to name but three we found guys who gave the side a lot of impetus.
“Once you start busting lines it’s incredibly hard to defend, as we know to our own cost, and the good thing was that we had those breaks and half-breaks from which to build pressure. Bordeaux then started to try and solve the problem by guys flying out of the line in a very individualistic fashion, and that was when we were able to pick them off.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Dragons (Friday, 7.30pm, Rodney Parade)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Zach Kibirige
13 Tom Penny
12 Josh Matavesi
11 Adam Radwan
10 Joel Hodgson
9 Sam Stuart
1 Sam Lockwood
2 Ben Sowrey
3 Scott Wilson
4 Will Witty
5 Sean Robinson
6 Mark Wilson (captain)
7 Gary Graham
8 Ryan Burrows
16 Jamie Blamire
17 Rob Vickers
18 Trevor Davison
19 Glen Young
20 Simon Uzokwe
21 Michael Young
22 Craig Willis
23 Charlie Wilson
Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland)