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By Behind the Bench
December 22 2016

The Christmas Eve fixture sees the improving Falcons return to NW4 six weeks after their Anglo Welsh Cup defeat here in what will be their fifth visit. And an early Christmas present has Chris Ashton available again (was a little too eager with the unwrapping in last week's preview when I said he was eligible for the Sale game).

Presumably coming off the bench he will rejoin a side in which things have largely gone to plan barring a narrow defeat at Bath. Crucially, given the heavy international contingent, it has been like most of last season in which players switched in and out of the side with no loss of cohesion. Hence the importance of culture across the club as the side showed great perseverance to come out with the win at the Sharks last week as the hosts gave a resilient display despite being out of contention in the tournament. Against a side with a commitment to attack, Saracens will be particularly alert to counter attacking opportunities afforded by unforced errors, and will look to press home their likely advantage in the scrum.

Although a gradual evolution, there are definite signs of improvement at Falcons, following the lead set by Saracens, their installation of an artificial pitch coincided with a move to a more ambitious style of play. It's taken time for this to yield results, particularly on the road, though the recent success at Northampton, despite the home side's recent troubles, felt like something of a landmark, putting them in seventh and with a distinct chance of an overdue appearance in top flight European rugby, but, perhaps more importantly, well clear of the relegation battle they had once again been tipped to contest. That said, their fortunes in the European Challenge Cup have oscillated wildly, with heavy defeats alternating with commanding home wins. 
The Falcons' last visit to Allianz Park brought a 29-18 loss, and after that, they lost 32-19 at home to Exeter Chiefs in a match which highlighted the good points of Newcastle, but also where they need to improve. Their ambitious approach led to an interception try for the visitors but after a couple of customary rolling mauls were repelled, the hosts hit the front as Marcus Watson initiated a smooth counter attack which brought a try for Scott Lawson, and though Alex Tait claimed a try in the second half, defensive errors in the face of a minority of possession and territory meant that the home side missed out on any reward in front of a bumper Friday night crowd. 
However, the next two wins changed the complexion of the season entirely. The trip to Northampton Saints brought a 22-16 win against a side reduced to 14 men when former Newcastle prop Kieran Brookes was dismissed in the closing moments of the first half. The sigbing of winger Niki Goneva from Leicester is a powerful symbol of the North East side's attacking intent, and he set up the opening try for fly half Joel Hodgson, proving a threat throughout as he made 154 metres and claiming a late intercept try to earn the win. Even given their depleted hosts, it was an impressive success story, as the Falcons made well over twice as much ground as the home side and completed 93% of their tackles. Behind the Bench was certainly impressed on his foray to Franklins Gardens. 
This was followed up in fine style as six tries were scored in an entertaining 38-32 home success over Harlequins. At times, the Falcons attacking edge has been blunted by handling errors, but not on this occasion as assured play and well-judged offloading yielded tries for Michael Young and Mark Wilson as well as two for Juan Pablo Socino, with a bonus point in the bag by the break. Despite a fightback by Quins, further efforts from Evan Olmstead and Watson secured the win. Into Europe, and two contrasting performances bring the story up to date. The trip to Lyon brought a 42-12 loss as a modified side had their moments in attack but struggled to deal with the forward power of the home side, although the tables were turned on the return at Kingston Park with a five try 48-29 win in which Socino got two more. 
Possible line ups may see some changes from the European double header for Saracens. Alex Goode should remain at full back with Sean Maitland and Chris Wyles on the wings and Marcelo Bosch and Brad Barritt in the centres. Owen Farrell should stay at fly half with Ben Spencer potentially coming in at scrum half. Forwards-wise, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George and Juan Figallo are a possible front row with Will Skelton and George Kruis in the second row, and Maro Itoje moved into the back row alongside Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray. Newcastle will probably revert to a similar starting XV to that against Quins, which means former Sarries lock Mouritz Botha seems likely to miss out. That would see Mike Delany at full back with Goneva and Watson on the wings outside a centre partnership of Dominic Wakdouck and Socino, with Hodgson accompanying Young in the half backs. Into the pack, and Rob Vickers should form the front row with hooker Lawson and David Wilson. Will Witty and Olmstead should be at lock with a back row comprised of Callum Chick, Mark Wilson and Ally Hogg. 

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22/12/2016 16:21
Thanks Gerard
I wonder if Mark McCall might be tempted to give Maitland and/or Wyles a well-earned Christmas break and start Ashy and/or Earle?
Have a lovely Christmas and thanks for all your excellent previews throughout the year.

Edited 2 time(s). Last edit at 2017:01:02:16:40:51 by Darraghgirl.

Highbury Saracen (IP Logged)
22/12/2016 17:57
Chris Wyles didnt have his best game last week
think he could be rested

European champions 2016 & 2017

The Bard (IP Logged)
22/12/2016 19:18
Sale had clearly targeted kicking behind Chris Wyles, much as Irish did la couple of years ago when Lewington scored a hat-trick.
Very much doubt we'll see Brad or Mako after their knocks last Sunday.
Thanks again for the preview, I'd wondered whether the 'Howay in a manger' title would get another outing!

Bedlington Lad (IP Logged)
23/12/2016 10:53
Falcons fan in peace (and goodwill !) that's a great write-up, I don't think many Falcons supporters are expecting much from his trip but at long last were are showing gradual signs of improvement, did we get our pitch after you?

Convex Hull (IP Logged)
24/12/2016 05:55
Sarries got their 3G pitch in 2012.

Regardez mon visage. Suis-je bovvered?

dick g (IP Logged)
25/12/2016 10:32
Falcons fan in incomprehension.

Vote Franšais est shite

Convex Hull (IP Logged)
25/12/2016 18:59

Regardez mon visage. Suis-je bovvered?

Convex Hull (IP Logged)
25/12/2016 19:07
Yes my French is shite, I was in Tunisia last week, meeting with the Ministry of Interior. They conduct their meetings in French, but when they get excited they switch to Arabic mid-sentence. It makes for an interesting time.

Fortunately, I had a young Tunisian girl who spoke perfect English, French and Arabic as my translator.

She was also better briefed on the topic under discussion than either the Ministry or our group, and was subsequently given the nickname of "Mata Hari".

Regardez mon visage. Suis-je bovvered?

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2016:12:25:19:19:15 by Convex Hull.

Dick Godfrey (IP Logged)
25/12/2016 22:19
Falcons fan in grovelling apology.

Nowt wrong with your French Bonney lad. It's a fair treat t'see some canny slaver. But how's yer Geordie like?

Convex Hull (IP Logged)
26/12/2016 02:35
Not that wonderful, but I was fluent in "Wigan", in my youth .

Regardez mon visage. Suis-je bovvered?

Dick Godfrey (IP Logged)
26/12/2016 08:50
Falcons fan in confession.

I must confess that my Geordie is not native. I was brought up in North London and played against Saracens when it was just another club like mine, Pinner

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