Newcastle Falcons name an unchanged side for the third game in a row as they prepare for Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership trip to last season’s beaten finalists, Wasps.
The 3pm kick-off at the Ricoh Arena sees the same starting XV which defeated Sale Sharks 15-13 at home last Friday, having won 19-12 at Bath on the opening weekend – Newcastle becoming the first promoted team since 2005 to win their opening two fixtures.
The only two changes to their match-day 23 are both on the bench where there is a potential debut for former South Africa scrum-half Louis Schreuder - recently arrived from Super Rugby side the Sharks – who is joined among the replacements by fit-again centre George Wacokecoke.
Head coach Dave Walder, a Premiership and European title winner with Wasps during his playing days, said: “Wasps were probably one disputed penalty try call away from being the Premiership champions, so we know it’s going to be tough down there.
“They’re a very good side, Lee Blackett has done a brilliant job and they created a huge momentum during the restart. They play a great brand of rugby from a spectator point of view, and having snuck under the radar for the first two weeks we know we’re not the surprise package any more.”
Confounding external expectations during the opening two rounds, Walder said: “People write us off every year, so it’s nothing new and we don’t pay too much attention to it. It’s just part of being at Newcastle Falcons.
“We’re up in the North East and we have to do certain things differently for all manner of reasons, but that’s the way it is and we just quietly get on with it. Our focus is entirely on getting our processes right and putting things into place on game day, so we’re not too worried about people on the outside talking us up or down.
“There’ll be some guys within the group who enjoy that underdog tag, and maybe others who’ve joined us from clubs we’re they’re expected to win trophies on a regular basis, and they embrace that expectation. Everyone’s different, and they all have their own ways of making sure they turn up on game day with the right preparation and motivation to give their best performance.”
Having tackled an unconventional off-season with more than eight and a half months between competitive games, Walder explained: “The uncertainty around not knowing whether or not we were going to get promoted was the most frustrating thing initially, and then not knowing when this season was going to start, but you have to keep things in perspective.
“People have been dying, losing their jobs or experiencing allsorts of serious health and economic problems, so we just have to be grateful we’re still here doing what we love.
“We had two really good pre-season hit-outs at Ealing which got us to where we needed to be for the start of the Premiership, and we’ve kicked on from there. Like everyone, we’ve had to adapt to circumstances which have been forced upon us in one way or another, but we’ve just got on with it.
“In a personal sense, it’s given me a bit of time to take stock of where I was as a coach. I’ve spoken to a few different people, looked at a few different things and probably just opened my eyes a little bit. We’ve had Nick Easter coming in to join us which has challenged some of the things we had probably got into the habit of doing as a coaching group. I think it’s healthy to have that input, and we’re starting to see the early results from it.”
Looking to go three wins from three before the upcoming European fortnight, he added: “Our confidence is high, our energy is good and that comes from winning games, which is something we’ve got into the habit of doing over the last year and a bit.
“We’re looking after the players in terms of their workload in training, and I think it just contributes to that freshness and good feeling around the place.
“The players have been great in terms of how they’ve adapted to things regarding the Covid protocols and everything that goes with it. It becomes the norm, and it’s not really a big problem to avoid hanging around in groups and adjusting what you can do from a contact training point of view at certain times during the week.
“The players have taken it in their stride, and even though things are different it’s not a huge problem. For away games you travel on two buses rather than one, and staying in the hotel is a bit different, too. The hotels are generally deserted and guys are maybe sometimes having to eat their meals in their rooms, but they’ve all got single bedrooms and they have extra legroom on the bus, so we’ve not had any complaints!”
Asked if he had been surprised by the Falcons’ start, Walder said: “When you haven’t played for eight months and the fixture list gives you three of last season’s top five teams in the first three rounds, two of them away from home, then you just don’t know how it’s going to play out.
“We were always confident within the group even if certain people on the outside weren’t, because we knew the work we’d put in. But you never know until that whistle blows.
“I thought we controlled the Bath game really well overall and were good value for our win, whereas last Friday we really had to grind it out against a strong Sale side. We’ve shown different things in each of our matches, but if you combine the character of the Sale game with the dominance of the Bath game, then we’re not in bad shape.”
Newcastle Falcons team to face Wasps (Saturday, 3pm, Ricoh Arena, live on BT Sport 5 Extra, red button)
15 Tom Penny
14 Adam Radwan
13 Luther Burrell
12 Toby Flood
11 Ben Stevenson
10 Brett Connon
9 Michael Young (captain)
1 Trevor Davison
2 George McGuigan
3 Logovi'i Mulipola
4 Greg Peterson
5 Marco Fuser
6 Sean Robinson
7 Connor Collett
8 Gary Graham
16 Jamie Blamire
17 Adam Brocklebank
18 Mark Tampin
19 Darren Barry
20 Josh Basham
21 Louis Schreuder
22 Joel Hodgson
23 George Wacokecoke
Referee: Andrew Jackson