FOR the second week in succession Newcastle Falcons are pitted directly against their closest challengers, with the unbeaten Championship leaders welcoming Nottingham to Kingston Park this evening.
The Midlands outfit produced the shock of the season last weekend in thrashing Bristol 63-7, with Falcons lock Scott MacLeod admitting: “We were really taken aback when we heard the score.
“We played Bristol on the first weekend of the season and they were an awesome team who pushed us all the way, so to see Nottingham do that to them was amazing.
“Fair play to them because they played well and deserved it, and their line-out functioned very well. Their whole pack buys into what they are doing at line-out time, and that will be a major test for us.”
The Falcons remain eight points ahead of tonight’s opponents, and make minimal changes to the side which defeated fellow contenders Bedford 29-20 last Saturday.
Both come in the back-line with Tom Catterick’s knee injury seeing him replaced on the wing by fit-again Luke Fielden, while Samoan international Jamie Helleur starts ahead of Alex Crockett in the centres.
Zach Kibirige misses out after straining a hamstring playing for Blaydon last weekend, while Will Welch’s continued absence with a back injury sees Ally Hogg leading the side once again.
Keen to learn the lessons from a Bedford trip which saw by far their closest flirtation with defeat, MacLeod said: “Saturday was the toughest game we have had this season and we didn’t play our best game by any stretch of the imagination.
“We were complacent at times, falling off tackles and not being as aggressive as we should have been.
“It was a major wake-up call for us, and we had a similar half down at London Scottish earlier in the season before coming back stronger for the next few games. Hopefully the same will happen again now, and it has kicked us back into gear.”
Refusing to be all doom and gloom, he added: “Our set-piece was still pretty good, although maybe not as much on the opposition’s ball.
“Line-out-wise we were happy enough, our exit sets from our own 22 worked well and that was important after a few slip-ups in recent weeks.”
Nottingham head up the M1 today with their week compressed by a Sunday-to-Friday turnaround, and make three changes to their side as flanker Tom Calladine earns a starting debut in a squad also containing former Tynedale prop Matty Shields on the bench.
MacLeod said: “They have a big driving maul and have scored a few tries from that, but we have been strong there ourselves and it should be a good contest - our toughest to date I would think.
“They have a good scrum, and a good line-out, a good mauling game and good physicality, so we know we have to turn up and stand our ground in those areas.
“Bedford was a strong challenge for us, and having two of these tests within eight days has got to be beneficial.” Facing the prospect of two games inside four days with the Falcons also set to host the Tongan national side on Tuesday, MacLeod said: “They have not made the selection for the game yet so I am not sure if I will be involved, but it is great to get games like that to the club and for the fans to be able to see the Tongans in action.
“I have played against Tonga once before for Scotland A in Galashiels, and that was a brilliant experience.
“Seeing their version of the Haka got everyone going, and hopefully the Newcastle public will get behind it. But for the time being our only focus is on Nottingham tonight.”
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, L Fielden, T Tu'ipulotu, J Helleur, R Shortland, J Gopperth, R Lawson; J Golding, R Vickers, O Tomaszczyk, S Tomes, S MacLeod, M Wilson, R Mayhew, A Hogg (captain). Replacements: M Thompson, J Hall, J Goode, C York, W Fury, J Hodgson, A Crockett.
NOTTINGHAM: A Savage, D Jackson, J Cobden, J Munro, R Crane, J Arlidge, S Romans; M Parr, J Duffey, M Holford, D Montagu, N Rouse, T Calladine, B Wilson (captain), A Shaw. Replacements: S Malton, M Shields, J Quinn, R Cooper, F Barnham, R Lynn, T Streather.
Referee: S Lee