Saturday 4 April 2015 – 8.00pm
Sandy Park, Exeter
European Challenge Cup quarter-final
After five Premiership games without a win, the Falcons have another break from the league this weekend as they travel to Exeter for a Saturday night European Challenge Cup quarter-final.
The eight quarter-finalists in this competition have been given an added incentive this week by the news that the winners in May’s London final will participate in the playoffs to win a place in 2015/16’s Champions Cup – and wouldn’t we all love to be playing teams like Leinster and Toulon next season?
Exeter will of course also be keen to get back into the top competition, having competed with the big boys for the past two seasons before dropping into the Challenge Cup this year. Rob Baxter’s side are looking good to qualify for the Champions Cup through the Premiership though, sitting fifth at present on 54 points, six ahead of sixth-placed Wasps.
That said, the scent of a trophy will no doubt have been picked up in EX2 too. The LV= Cup holders lost their title to Saracens in this year’s final at Franklin’s Gardens a couple of weeks ago and will be looking to end the year with at least one trophy, as they still hunt a Premiership playoff place for the first time.
Our two meetings so far this season have led to two home wins. The away game was a bit of a disaster for the Falcons, who were trounced 46-17 in probably our worst performance of the season in February. Probably nothing more to say about that. A lot more fun was our 29-24 win at Kingston Park in October, a result that brought to an end the Falcons’ 20-game losing run in the league. Two quick tries from Tom Catterick (converted by Juan Pablo Socino) and Noah Cato turned the Chiefs’ seven-point lead into a five-point advantage for the Falcons within two minutes, and in the final ten minutes 4,000 home fans roared our team to a fantastic victory.
This year’s loss at Sandy Park was our fifth successive winless trip to Exeter, so that’s a record we will be looking to change this weekend.
The Falcons previously played a European game in Exeter in December 2010, in a group match in this tournament. It was a day to forget, and not just because it was incredibly cold! The Chiefs scored five tries, including the last one from future Falcon Andy Higgins, in a 36-10 win that had seen them lead 22-0 at half-time. Micky Young and Danny Williams were our try-scorers, but the name of our starting inside centre is a real blast from the past – Andrew Henderson. This was one of the 53-cap Scottish international’s final appearances in a short Newcastle career, and it’s fair to say that he never hit any heights at KP.
As well as never having won a match at Sandy Park, the Falcons have never won a one-off away knockout game in Europe, going back to our first semi-final in December 1998, when Rob Andrew’s superstars lost 12-9 to Agen in France. Pau, Stade Francais, Clermont-Auvergne, Worcester, Saracens… even Harlequins at Headingley in 2001. It’s about time we broke these sequences I think.
Chris Harris starts after his scoring comeback to the first team last week, and Juan Pablo Socino and Adam Powell are teamed up in the centres. Sinoti Sinoti, drafted into the European squad since the group stage, makes his continental debut for the Falcons. The forward pack is unchanged from Irish.
15 Alex Tait, 14 Chris Harris, 13 Adam Powell, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Tom Catterick, 9 Ruki Tipuna, 1 Rob Vickers, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Kieran Brookes, 4 Dom Barrow, 5 Kane Thompson, 6 Richard Mayhew, 7 Will Welch (c), 8 Mark Wilson.
Replacements 16 George McGuigan, 17 Eric Fry, 18 Juan Pablo Orlandi, 19 Calum Green, 20 Dan Temm, 21 Tane Takulua, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Simon Hammersley.
Exeter team: 15 Byron McGuigan, 14 Tom James, 13 Ian Whitten, 12 Sam Hill, 11 Matt Jess, 10 Henry Slade, 9 Will Chudley, 1 Ben Moon, 2 Jack Yeandle, 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Mitch Lees, 5 Damian Welch , 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Dean Mumm (c), 8 Thomas Waldrom.
Replacements: 16 Elvis Taione, 17 Carl Rimmer, 18 Moray Low, 19 Ben White, 20 Kai Horstmann, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Fetu’u Vainikolo.
With the Falcons safe from relegation but looking likely to finish in eleventh place in the table, the Challenge Cup is the only tangible thing we are still playing for this season, and the management clearly recognise that with Sinoti among the additions to the European squad. Lets go for it!
If you’re not going to the game, don’t forget that it’s live on the telly at KP’s new Tap and Tackle bar too. We’ll be hoping for a prompt landing in Madeira and to quickly find a bar showing the game – thus I’ll be taking a break from blogging for a week or two. Thanks for reading for now!
(Follow The South Stand Choir on Twitter: @SouthStandChoir)