Newcastle Falcons have made four changes to their side for Sunday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final at Exeter Chiefs, fly-half Toby Flood among the returning players.
Flood was a late withdrawal from last weekend’s Aviva Premiership victory at Gloucester due to illness but is fit to form a half-back pairing with Tongan international Sonatane Takulua, who replaces Michael Young in the No 9 shirt.
Maxime Mermoz starts at outside centre in place of Chris Harris, lock Will Witty replacing Calum Green in the only other change as the Falcons aim to reach their first cup final since 2011.
The winner of Sunday’s semi-final will meet either Northampton or Bath in the final in Gloucester on Sunday March 18, Newcastle heading into their semi-final in fine form at fourth in the Aviva Premiership table and with the best away record in the league, winning on six of their nine road trips.
Director of rugby Dean Richards said: “I watched the Exeter v Saracens game last Sunday and it was a different level of intensity to our own match at Gloucester, so we know we’ve got to step it up a gear against a very good side.
“The good thing is that our guys are beginning to show a really strong mental resolve, we’re winning most of the tight games and our record away from home is outstanding. We’ll need all of those qualities on Sunday and we can travel with a lot of confidence.
“Our defence is going pretty well, we’d like to score more tries but we’re working hard on that, and provided we get one more point than the opposition then that’s all I’m worried about.”
Having ground out a 21-20 triumph at Gloucester last weekend despite a disrupted build-up, Richards said: “The players are understanding what’s needed in games, they’re maturing and they’re overcoming a lot of the challenges that are being put in front of them.
“We sat down with the boys last Saturday morning before the Gloucester match and explained they had every excuse under the sun not to turn up, but that we needed them to just put it behind them and get on with it. We had our flight cancelled which meant a long bus trip down, we lost our starting loose-head through the night when his wife went into labour, we lost our starting fly-half on the day of the game through illness and all these things can pile up on you.
“But the lads showed a lot of mental toughness, they didn’t take the excuses that were there and they just cracked on with the job. We took every opportunity we had in attack, and even in conceding four tries we managed to make sure they were scored in the corner so the kicks were more difficult, which ultimately proved to be the difference.”
Embarking on a month which sees the Falcons playing a European home quarter-final as well as staging their biggest ever home crowd at St James’ Park, Richards said: “Whichever game you look at from now until the end of the season, they’re all huge.
“There’s so much at stake, whether it be winning the Anglo-Welsh cup, finishing in the Aviva Premiership semi-finals, winning the European Challenge Cup, qualifying for the Champions Cup – and it’s a really positive environment.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Exeter Chiefs (Sunday, 1pm, Sandy Park, live on BT Sport)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Maxime Mermoz
12 Josh Matavesi
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Toby Flood
9 Sonatane Takulua
1 Sam Lockwood
2 Kyle Cooper
3 Jon Welsh
4 Will Witty
5 Sean Robinson
6 Ally Hogg
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Nili Latu
16 Santiago Socino
17 Rob Vickers
18 Scott Wilson
19 Calum Green
20 Ryan Burrows
21 Michael Young
22 Joel Hodgson
23 Chris Harris
Referee: Karl Dickson