Fly-half Brett Connon says a week-one assignment against the champions is the ideal way for Newcastle Falcons to start their Gallagher Premiership season, as Harlequins head to Kingston Park Stadium on Sunday.
The Londoners lifted the Premiership title in June after a thrilling final against Exeter, Connon saying: “I think it’s excitement more than anything else, knowing you’ve got the champions on the opening weekend.
“We beat them here last season, although we let ourselves down in the sun a bit during the last game of the season. Quins were in good form then, as they showed in the semi-final and final, but for us it’s just excitement about taking on the champions in front of a good home crowd.”
Plotting back-to-back home wins against Harlequins, the Cumbrian said: “You’ve got to stick to what you do well.
“For Harlequins that means playing a lot of ball-in-hand stuff, and the reason they did so well in the end is because they bought into a team structure and philosophy. We’ve got to do what we do well rather than try and copy the opposition, and if we do that we’ve got a very good chance.
“The thing you hear all the time is that nobody likes coming up here and it’s always physical, which isn’t a bad starting point. Our forwards really set that tone with their aggression levels, but as a whole team we work hard for each other and fight to the death.
“That’s all fine, but it’s also important to recognise we’ve got a lot of dangerous attackers in addition to that physicality. We began to show a bit of that last season but I think there’s a lot more to come, and people this season will see we’ve got a great balance to the squad.”
Newcastle have won all three of their pre-season friendlies, opening up away to Glasgow (7-12), hosting Doncaster the next day (33-29) and travelling up to Edinburgh last Saturday (10-26), those results coming on the back of a productive summer on the training field.
“I don’t mind pre-season, to be honest,” said Connon, the former Ireland Under-20s international.
“I think the build-up to it – the fear when you’re sat on the beach on holiday – is worse than the actual event itself.
“You get your testing done in the first week and you have to hit certain targets, but it’s nice weather, everyone’s in a good mood because they’re back with their mates, you’re playing a few games in training and not having to do contact for a while.
“It’s not like the old-school days where you used to get beasted for two months and didn’t see a rugby ball until September – we incorporate a lot of skills and games into pretty much everything we do.
“We did have a horrendous hill-running session on the Town Moor, which was the hardest I’ve ever done, but I think that was more just a one-off to see what the boys have got upstairs more than anything else. The rugby training has been really good, we’ve been challenged as players and I think it’s put us in a good place going into our pre-season games.
“On the one hand you can say three wins from three is good, but we always look at performances.
“All the lads have said there’s more in us than we showed during those games, which is a positive step in not being satisfied, and hopefully this weekend we can click a bit better in certain aspects of our game which have needed a bit of attention.”
One facet of the game which will be new to everyone is the 50:22 law, which means an attacking team kicking the ball from their own half indirectly into touch inside the opposition’s 22 wins the throw-in to the line-out.
“The 50:22 law is on everyone’s mind – certainly among the kickers,” said Connon, who has scored 200 points in his 48 appearances for the Falcons.
“Your forwards would love you to do a 50:22 – I think you’d earn instant hero status among the pack and I’m sure every team will have put a bit of focus on it.
“It’s interesting to see the games going on at the minute and how many 50:22s we’ve seen, which has been hardly any. Maybe people thought there’d be more, but I think it will be quite organic how they come about.
“The onus is predominantly on the half-backs to make it happen, and they could be game-changing moments.
“You could try and pre-plan it but I think defences are so organised and switched-on these days, it’s more likely going to be a case of just scanning the back-field all the time to see when it’s on, and then acting quickly when you see that opportunity.
“It will become more instinctive as the year goes on, because at the start it’s still new to everyone. People will be looking for it and defences will be ready, so it’s just being clever in terms of choosing your moment to try one.”
Loving the opportunity to run out in front of his home crowd, Connon added: “It’s going to be amazing having so many of our supporters back.
“We had a taste of it for the final two games of last season, and 1,600 against Northampton honestly felt like a full house. The atmosphere was just crazy after so long without fans, and we were having to adjust back to not being able to hear each other on the field.
“The crowd numbers will hopefully build up, and we as players know we have a responsibility to help achieve that by the rugby we play and the results we put on the board.
“Beating the champions in week one would be a great marker to put down, and really say to sports fans in the region that we’re a team worth coming to watch.”
Tickets for Sunday’s 3pm kick-off against Harlequins are available by clicking here.
Car parking is available by clicking here.