Toby Flood believes Newcastle Falcons’ ability to negotiate the high-pressure moments will stand them in good stead for Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash at Ealing.
The Falcons are six points clear of the second-placed Trailfinders after six rounds of Greene King IPA Championship action - Flood making no attempt to play down the significance of the televised fixture.
“Whichever way you look at it, this game has a huge significance on what is to come for the rest of the season,” said the fly-half.
“When you do the quick maths, if we win this weekend then Ealing have got to win something like three more games than us, not accounting for bonus points.
“That means firstly that we’ve got to slip up a couple of times, and have those nasty moments in changing rooms and Monday reviews, and then that Ealing would have to keep winning. They’ve already lost at Cornish Pirates and drawn at home to Coventry, fixtures that we’ve managed to win, and if we win on Saturday we’re in a really strong position going into the new year.
“Ealing have spent money on their squad to try and gain promotion, they’re capable of doing that and they’ve been close for the last couple of years. We understand the quality they’ve got but we feel like we’re in a good position, and the excitement levels are high among the lads.
“They’ll come firing out of the blocks because if they can get into us early on they’ll want to feed off that momentum, and we’re ready for that. It will be close to a Premiership-standard game, and that’s what you want as a player.”
Searching for further gains despite his side being on a 12-game winning run, Flood said: “There’s definitely room for improvement because we haven’t always maintained our level during those games, but I think that will come when we get into the pressure matches like Saturday down at Ealing.
“Guys really need to stand up on days like this, and on the occasions where we’ve had pressure situations like Bedford away, Cornish Pirates away and London Scottish away, we’ve always been able to come through. In the big moments this season we’ve done pretty well in terms of managing the pressure and taking care of the scoreboard, and while it hasn’t always been fireworks in terms of our playing style we’ve had the mind-set to just get the job done.
“Speaking to players who have been in this situation before, the biggest thing they mention is about having the mind-set to go out and do it every week when you’re big favourites to win. You have to carry that weight of knowing that pretty much everyone expects you to win, which is a great position to know that people have that belief in you, but at the same time you’re conscious it can hamper your performance if you allow it to.
“The biggest thing for us, without sounding disrespectful to other teams, is the fact that we are winning games fairly comfortably without maybe quite showing that killer mind-set at times.
“We’ve been disheartening teams by starting big, like last weekend in getting the bonus point before half-time against Jersey. We subconsciously maybe slid our foot off the gas a little bit after that start, but when you’re 12 from 12 it becomes a habit and you’re comfortable in knowing what you need to do to keep winning.”
Having seen his side score a barrage of late tries this season, the fly-half added: “We’ve finished a lot of our games strongly, which isn’t a bad trait to have.
“It’s easy to say it’s down to fitness - I don’t know how true that is - but we certainly pride ourselves on being a well-conditioned side.
“Potentially it’s just the wear and tear that we inflict on the opposition over that first hour which can break them down a bit for the closing stages, and if you take the front-row for example we’re able to put a tremendous amount of weight through our scrum with guys like Logo Mulipola, Rodney Ah You, George McGuigan, Mark Tampin, Sam Lockwood - I could sit and name a load more of them too.
“The quality that we’re then able to bring off the bench can really hurt teams, and it reminds of me of playing Champions Cup games away in France when you’re in contention around the hour mark and they bring on six international-standard mutants from the bench. You just run out of firepower, and maybe that’s a little bit of what is happening to the other teams in this division when they play against us. Our bench is a big differential, and when you combine that with the general fitness of our guys it’s a case of hitting teams again and again.”
Potentially up against a familiar face in former Falcons fly-half Craig Willis if both players are selected for the weekend, Flood said: “Craig will know bits and pieces of our game, but at the same time we’re well aware of the strengths and weakness that Craig has in his own play.
“He’s a good player with a great skill set, I thought he brought a lot to the table and he’ll be pushing to get into a Premiership side with the quality he has.
“Overall, though, we just need to stick to our task and trust the game plan. It’s a massive game, but rather than seeing it is a constricting pressure we’re viewing it as an opportunity to really put down a marker and putting ourselves into a great position in the division.”