Newcastle Falcons are handing debuts to Philip van der Walt and Cooper Vuna in Friday night’s Championship Cup home game against Hartpury.
South African back-rower Van der Walt joined from South African Super Rugby side the Sharks in the summer but has spent the past few months overcoming shoulder surgery, while Tongan wing Vuna lines up after representing his country at the Rugby World Cup in Japan.
Centre Gareth Owen makes his first start for the Falcons after scoring on his debut from the bench last time out against Coventry, Sonatane Takulua making his first start of the campaign after returning from World Cup duty.
USA lock Greg Peterson starts for the first time since his summer switch from Bordeaux, Toby Flood returning from suspension to captain a Newcastle side looking for their tenth straight victory in all competitions.
Defence coach John Wells identified what he wishes to see from Friday’s debutants, explaining: “I’m hoping that those guys will bring a bit of experience to the table. They’ve all come from either an international or a Super Rugby level, and they will bring a skill set and a leadership ability to the team which will add to what we already have.
“It’s been a long road for Phil because he had surgery quite quickly after joining us in the summer, and he hasn’t been able to get involved in too much of the contact work. He will be let loose on Friday, and what he brings is great hands, he’s a lovely ball player who links really well, carries in open field and defends strongly. I really like what I see in him, and I hope he fits in to what is an already very competitive back row.
“Cooper has played at centre and wing for Tonga during the Rugby World Cup, he’s a big strong guy who can beat a man with power or footwork, he’s a very destructive defender and I’m looking forward to seeing him out there.
“The thing to bear in mind is that these guys haven’t played in our system and haven’t played together before, and you could really include Gareth Owen in that as well despite the fact he played 15 minutes or so at the end of our last game. It’s how quickly they can take on board our style of play, and how quickly the qualities they’re adding will enhance our overall level.”
The Falcons’ three Championship Cup games have seen them defeating Jersey away (8-21), Doncaster at home (57-0) and Hartpury away (14-52), with the pool leaders boasting the best attacking and defensive record in the competition.
Beating Coventry 46-7 last time out in the league, Wells said: “We were all pretty pleased with the Coventry game because we’d been looking for a decent performance.
“We’d played pretty well in patches during the previous games but we hadn’t strung it together for 80 minutes, and while we didn’t quite crack the full 80 against Coventry we put much more good bits of play together over a much longer period of time. We were pretty solid in defence and scored some good tries, so the challenge for us now is to reach those levels on a more consistent basis.
“It’s not that we’re not trying and that the boys haven’t been working hard, it has just proved difficult for us to hit the heights that we aspire to. We’ve been winning games, but not winning them with a performance level that satisfies us. The Coventry performance was much more like it, and I think players, coaches and supporters alike just want us to carry on now with that as the benchmark.”
Newcastle have conceded only 63 points from their nine games so far this term, an average of just seven per match, although Wells is typically pragmatic when asked the reasons behind their record.
“There are two sides to it when you look at how the defence has gone this season, and being brutal about it the first of those is the fact we’re playing a level below where we were this time last year,” said the former England and Leicester Tigers coach.
“That’s probably the biggest influencer, but that being said we still have to defend what’s in front of us. By and large we’ve done that reasonably well so far this year, although ironically Hartpury are one of the teams who have given us the most problems.
“Despite winning both games against them quite well on the scoreboard they are one of the few sides to have moved us around the field, and they do threaten you in a variety of positions. A lot of times this season teams have just come route-one at us, but Hartpury, perhaps because of their university background, do have more of a willingness to move the ball a little bit wider and a little bit more often.”
Having already met the Gloucestershire club on two occasions, Wells added: “We’ll have played Hartpury three times in under two months, and to be honest it’s a bit of a pain the way the fixture list has worked out.
“We seem to keep playing the same teams multiple times and not playing other teams at all, but that’s just one of those things and you have to get on with it. We’ve already played Jersey twice, we play Doncaster again next weekend and then Jersey for a third time the week after, and it just seems to be the same teams.
“When you go and do your opposition analysis you feel like you’re looking at the same pictures week after week, but all you can do is crack on with it and let it all unfold.”
The Falcons hierarchy have made no bones about the fact that promotion back to the Premiership remains the stated aim for the season, although with silverware still up for grabs in the Championship Cup Wells is in no mood to turn his nose up at the opportunity to win a trophy.
“My belief is that you play every game to win every game,” he said.
“I’m not bothered what team the opposition put out because our mentality is to win every game, and at the level we’re playing at this season we’ve got a squad strong enough to do it.
“We have guys who have a need for game time and who deserve that opportunity this week, we’ve got guys who’ve come back from the World Cup and others who are back from injury. Some of those players will get their chance, which also affords an opportunity for some of the other boys to freshen up a little.”
Tickets for Friday’s 8pm kick-off are available by clicking here, calling 0871 226 6060 or from Kingston Park Stadium in person. This ticket also includes entry into the 4pm BUCS Super Rugby kick-off between Northumbria University and Hartpury.
Newcastle Falcons team v Hartpury University RFC (Friday, 8pm, Kingston Park Stadium)
15 Tim Swiel
14 Alex Tait
13 Gareth Owen
12 Josh Matavesi
11 Cooper Vuna
10 Toby Flood (captain)
9 Sonatane Takulua
1 Sam Lockwood
2 Jamie Blamire
3 Rodney Ah you
4 Darren Barry
5 Greg Peterson
6 Will Welch
7 John Hardie
8 Philip van der Walt
16 George McGuigan
17 Adam Brocklebank
18 Logovi'i Mulipola
19 Rob Farrar
20 Simon Uzokwe
21 Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti
22 Joel Hodgson
23 Ben Stevenson
Hartpury University RFC
15 Mike Wilcox
14 Jacob Morris
13 Dan Koster
12 Joe Margetts
11 Sam Goatley
10 Tiff Eden
9 Harry Cochrane
1 Des Merrey
2 Beck Cutting
3 Mike Flook
4 Joe Batley
5 Will Safe
6 Aaron Hinkley
7 Max Clementson (captain)
8 Sam Graham
16 Will Crane
17 Alex Seville
18 Ashley Challenger
19 Seb Nagle-Taylor
20 Jack Preece
21 Luke Carter
22 Charlie Powell
23 Jack Reeves
Referee: Hamish Smales