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No stranger to silverware after winning two European Cups and three French league titles during an illustrious playing career, Maxime Mermoz has a hunger for more as Newcastle Falcons embark on Sunday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final at Exeter.

The winner will play either Bath or Northampton in next Sunday’s final in Gloucester, Mermoz excited about the possibilities in a month which also sees the Falcons hosting a European Challenge Cup quarter-final and playing an Aviva Premiership game at St James’ Park.

“We have no regrets, but we know we can be better and we will be better,” said the French centre, whose 35 international caps include a Rugby World Cup final.

“I think we will raise the bar even higher for the next few weeks, because this could be a big month in the history of the club with some of the games we have coming up like The Big One at St James’ Park, a European Challenge Cup quarter-final against Brive on Good Friday and hopefully an Anglo-Welsh Cup final next weekend.”

The Falcons have already had their best season in almost 20 years, surpassing last season’s total of 49 league points with five Premiership games remaining and positioning themselves as genuine play-off contenders at fourth in the table.

Boasting the best away record in the division with six wins from nine on the road, the Falcons have already demonstrated they can beat last season’s champions as they head down to Exeter for Sunday’s televised 1pm kick-off.

“People might say we go down to Exeter full of confidence, but for me we go down to Exeter with a smile,” said the 31-year-old.

“I think that’s important, and although the boys are working very hard in training we are also having a good laugh and enjoying what we are doing. We work to win, and we’re playing without a fear of losing. I think that’s the biggest thing – we’re just playing to win.

“It’s a big difference, and throughout my career it has always been a big thing to enjoy what you’re doing. Sometimes you lose even when you work hard, and that’s just life, but if you keep smiling and keep enjoying the effort you are putting in you are in a much better position to find those positive results.

“Exeter are a famously strong team and they showed last weekend that they can win against the European champions, Saracens, so with that in mind we’re not going there with any sense over-confidence. We just have a very simple mind-set of thinking about what we have to do, we have worked on our own game this week rather than analysing Exeter too much and in play-off rugby that has to be the mentality. Just think about how you are going to win the game, then go out and do it.”

Featuring more prominently for the Falcons in recent weeks and impressing from the bench, Mermoz played an hour of last weekend’s 21-20 triumph at Gloucester when Newcastle became the first opposing team to win at Kingsholm all season in the Premiership.

“I started pre-season really well, I felt very good and I was 100% fit,” said the former Toulon, Perpignan, Toulouse and Leicester man.

“I was very excited to start the season feeling in such good shape, but unfortunately in September I had a balance problem which was something to do with my ear. It meant I had a lot of time away from the field, and even though I continued to train I was not 100%. Everything isn’t completely fixed yet but I feel quite a bit better, and things seem to be settling down for me at last.

“It was exciting to get back into the squad after such a long time out, and I really enjoyed it. I got 20 minutes to start with, then another 20 and another 20, and then last weekend at Gloucester I was on the field for 60 minutes following Sinoti’s injury. It wasn’t perfect but I have a better sensation, I train better and I am starting to play better.

“Gloucester was a tough place to play rugby, I’ve watched them on TV a few times down there and I knew it would not be easy to get the result in that atmosphere against a good team like them. In the end it was a close game but we were happy to win, and even if we made some mistakes it was nice to come home with another four points.”

Crediting the influence of head coach Dave Walder, he added: “We have a lot of freedom on the field, we play with a good shape and Dave is always happy when we try something.

“He helps us to read the game more, he is a very impressive coach and he has got us thinking about the game and using our ability to make good decisions for ourselves. We are really free on the field thanks to Dave, and it’s a system the guys enjoy.”

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