Maxime Mermoz will be on familiar ground on Saturday when his Newcastle Falcons side runs out against Bordeaux-Begles at Stade Chaban-Delmas, with the experienced Frenchman expecting a high-tempo European Challenge Cup encounter.
Making his competitive debut during last weekend’s 32-27 home triumph over the Dragons, Mermoz has been able to give Newcastle the inside track on a Bordeaux side who currently top the Falcons’ group after a 57-17 triumph over Enisei-STM in Russia in round one.
“Bordeaux are quite similar to Newcastle in a way,” said the two-time European Champions Cup winner, who has three French league winner’s medals from his time at Toulon, Perpignan and Toulouse.
“They don’t have too many big boys but they have a lot of speed. They play as a team and have a lot of confidence, they score plenty of points and even in Siberia last week they put up a big total. For me they’re one of the best teams in the Top 14.”
Giving his team-mates an idea of what they can expect at Stade Chaban-Delmas, Mermoz added: “The stadium over there is amazing.
“It’s very big with being a former soccer stadium but the stands are quite a way back from the pitch, and that’s the only thing I don’t like. We have to expect to sweat a lot because it’s hot there, but I expect a good game because both teams want to play attacking rugby and the Challenge Cup is a competition in which ambition is rewarded.”
Playing down the fact that Saturday’s fixture represents a return to his homeland, Mermoz said: “Going back to France isn’t a particularly big moment for me, because that’s not why I came to Newcastle.
“It’s good to be involved in the game and to be playing for the Falcons, but I came to England to play against English teams. Those experiences are the ones I will really regard as special, because with the best will in the world I have already played many times in Bordeaux and I know what it’s about.
“It was very exciting to play last week against the Dragons and it’s always good to wear the jersey. We started well and I thought we were going to win by more, but we made some mistakes and it became more of a contest than it probably should have been.”
Showing up well during pre-season games but facing a delay in making his competitive debut, the centre said: “I want to train hard and be part of the team, and I know with the quality we have here that I have to work to earn that place.
“In terms of not being available at the start of the Premiership it was frustrating, but it was for personal family reasons rather than an injury, and it’s just one of those things. I had a really good pre-season with a very intense July and August, and I enjoyed discovering a new team, a new club and a new city. I was ready to play in the Premiership after our pre-season friendlies but I had to go back to France for a little while, and I missed a month or so as a result. I’m back now and determined to do well for Newcastle, so now it’s a case of just working hard for the rest of the season and doing my best for this club.
“It hasn’t been a difficult move. Thanks to rugby I’m already used to moving quite a bit, so for me it’s quite easy. Last season I moved to Leicester Tigers for three months, and when you’re a rugby player you have an instant group of new team-mates and friends with every move. Everyone welcomes you with a smile, and when I go on the rugby field it’s like I am in France. Nothing changes on the rugby field, it’s always the same shape and it’s easy to adapt.
“The style in the Top 14 is different to the Premiership. In France it’s a bit more physical but there’s a bit more shape and structure over here, and more attention to detail. French rugby is probably a little bit more on instinct rather than planning, but they’re both very good competitions.”
Welcoming the competition for places in a Falcons squad which sits fourth in the Aviva Premiership, Mermoz said: “It is difficult to get into this team because the guys are playing well, but that’s not a problem. We’re all one team together and I want the Falcons to do well – we all play together and these guys are my team-mates rather than my rivals. It’s a long season and there will be times when we share the workload between us, so it’s all about building a strong squad in which everyone has a part.
“We’ve had a good start in terms of results but we all know we need to work hard to be more accurate. Without disrespecting some of the teams we’ve beaten I think we’ve won a lot of games that we should be winning, and the bigger test will come when we play some of the teams who are going to be nearer the top of the league. We’re definitely improving and we’re not in a bad place, but we need to keep moving and we can get a lot better.
“One of the things that has impressed me most about Newcastle this season is how well we’ve played away from home.
“We’ve played well in Newcastle by beating London Irish and Worcester but, no disrespect to them, they’re not going to be up there as top teams. Those are games we should be winning, but away from home we have achieved some good wins at Sale and Bath. At Bath in particular, when they scored three times inside 10 minutes I turned off the TV because I thought we’d lost the game. I got a big shock when I then heard the final score 20 minutes later, and to still win the game even though we made some silly mistakes shows just how good we could be when we get it right.”