Newcastle Falcons have named their side for Friday’s crucial Premiership Rugby Cup clash against Leicester Tigers at Kingston Park Stadium (kick-off 7.45pm).
Lock-forward George Merrick is among the players coming into the team for the televised clash, with second-placed Newcastle looking to rein in the three-point gap between themselves and the unbeaten Tigers at the top of Pool 2, with only the three group winners and one best-placed runner-up progressing through to the semi-finals.
Freddie Lockwood makes his first start for the club after impressing from the bench in the recent Premiership games against Harlequins and Saracens, forming an all-homegrown back row with Tom Marshall and captain Callum Chick.
Another academy product, Rob Farrar, partners Merrick in the second row, with Adam Brocklebank, Charlie Maddison and Richard Palframan freshening up the front-row selection.
Brett Connon starts at fly-half in a backs division which sees the return of Luther Burrell and Max Wright in the centres, with Ollie Lindsay-Hague and Alex Tait coming in at wing and full-back respectively.
On the bench, there could be first-team debuts for homegrown scrum-half James Blackett and former Ulster back-five forward Matthew Dalton, while a barrage of back-row injuries sees England hooker Jamie Blamire drafted in as cover.
Head coach Dave Walder is determined to use Friday as an opportunity to chalk up a long-overdue victory.
“It’s a break from the intensity of the Gallagher Premiership, but at the same time it’s another opportunity for us to work towards a victory,” said the former England fly-half, who was a two-time Cup winner with the Falcons in 2001 and 2004.
“It will give a number of our players the chance to show the coaches what they’ve got, but it’s a game that we’re taking seriously and a trophy we want to win.
“Our last three home games have been really frustrating for the group, as I’m sure they have been for our supporters, because we’ve played some really good stuff at times and been in with a great chance of winning. Against Exeter and Bath we were beaten by scores in the 77th minute, and last weekend against a good Saracens side they pulled away around the 70-minute mark. We were disappointed at the opportunities we didn’t take, given how much we created, and we’re working hard to correct it.”
Elaborating on the thinking within the club, Walder added: “It probably comes down to a bit of accuracy and decision-making at key times, and then as coaches we have to reflect on the fact that maybe we’ve not used our bench as effectively as we could have done. Maybe in terms of our game-plan I’ve been predicting certain things which haven’t happened, and we’re all in it together as players and coaches in terms of reflecting on what’s gone wrong. Each week it has been something slightly different, and if we all make slightly better decisions in key moments then things will happen for us.
“It would be nice to get a win under our belts because we’ve been playing some good rugby and giving opportunities to a lot of our promising homegrown players. The performances have been getting better, which is pleasing, but there’s obviously a mental toll when you have a group of largely young men who are putting in the work and not getting the results.
“We’re learning, and I honestly don’t think it will take much for us to turn things around. It all starts with one win, and Friday is the next opportunity for us to make that happen. We’re in great shape for the longer term with the quality of players we have coming through the system, but for that immediate hit of confidence we need to be winning in the here and now.”
Asked whether the absence of relegation from the Premiership had changed the Falcons’ thinking regarding their league programme, the head coach said: “The fact that there’s no relegation this season makes absolutely no difference to what we’re doing.
“Nobody wants to finish bottom of the Premiership. We’re all proud people, and I can promise you we’re working just as hard to get away from that part of the league as we would do if there was relegation still in play. Nobody wants to lose every week, and we’re putting a team out to win games every single time we take the field.
“We’ve got some new faces coming into the picture for Friday’s game – guys who have trained all year and been really patient despite to the lack of playing opportunities. There’s been no A-League this season and we’ve had limited scope to get guys out on dual-registration, and after a long block of Premiership games it’s also a chance to refresh a few boys in a physical and mental sense, who just need a bit of a break.
“Looking at the side we’ve been able to put out, it’s a good 23, and I’m looking forward to seeing how they go.
“It’s a chance to put some spring back into our season, because we’ve dropped off after a great start. Once you start to lose momentum in a league as tough as the Premiership it’s hard to get it back, and maybe as a coaching team we could have made some better decisions at times. We’ll all take that on board along with the players, but it’s about moving forward now and really looking to push for a positive last third of the season.
“That all starts on Friday.”
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Newcastle Falcons team v Leicester Tigers (Friday, 7.45pm, Kingston Park Stadium, live on BT Sport)
15 Alex Tait, 14 Zach Kerr, 13 Max Wright, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Nathan Earle, 10 Brett Connon, 9 Louis Schreuder; 1 Adam Brocklebank, 2 Charlie Maddison, 3 Richard Palframan, 4 George Merrick, 5 Rob Farrar, 6 Callum Chick (captain), 7 Freddie Lockwood, 8 Tom Marshall.
Replacements: 16 Robbie Smith, 17 Conrad Cade, 18 Mark Tampin, 19 Matthew Dalton, 20 Jamie Blamire, 21 James Blackett, 22 Joel Hodgson, 23 George Wacokecoke.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Kini Murimurivalu, 14 Kobus van Wyk, 13 Jaco Taute (captain), 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Hosea Saumaki, 10 Dan Lancaster, 9 Jonny Law; 1 Francois van Wyk, 2 Archie Vanes, 3 Will Hurd, 4 Josh Poullet, 5 David Douglas Bridge, 6 Tomiwa Agbongbon, 7 Nathan Tweedy, 8 Sean Jansen.
Replacements: 16 David Aniebonam, 17 Dan Richardson, 18 Nephi Leatigaga, 19 Chester Owen, 20 Simon Koroiyadi, 21 Sam Edwards, 22 Morgan Meredith, 23 Jacob Cusick.
Referee: Sara Cox.