Team news: Fearns makes first start at Exeter
The experienced forward has made a telling impact from the bench during the Falcons’ recent victories over Northampton Saints and London Irish, and forms a combative back-row alongside Scotland caps Gary Graham and John Hardie.
Toby Flood captains the side from fly-half, with Joel Hodgson starting at full-back after impressing from the bench during the Falcons’ 18-10 home win over Northampton last time out.
Former Ireland international Rodney Ah You helped anchor the game’s decisive scrum as ball against the head enabled Chidera Obonna to score his first Falcons try, and Obonna, too, is given a chance to impress from the start as the Falcons make the 740-mile round trip – the longest journey in the league.
Director of rugby Dean Richards hands a first team debut to former Scotland Under-20s captain Robbie Smith, with Kyle Cooper and Toby Salmon packing down against one of their former clubs.
England Under-20s fly-half Will Haydon-Wood is in line for his Gallagher Premiership debut should he be called upon from the bench, the former Sedbergh pupil having helped the Falcons to a European Challenge Cup victory away to Castres earlier in the season.
Former Scotland Under-20s flanker Tom Marshall and Northern Irish wing Zach Kerr are also in line for their Premiership bows, with Richards happy to utilise his resources.
“We’ve been told to make our longest away trip of the season on a Sunday, so bearing in mind the travel and the short turnaround there’s obviously an element of having to look after our players in view of the bigger picture,” said the director of rugby, who is relishing the opportunity to see his team playing in front of fans for the second week running.
“Having a crowd in does make a difference to the players, and just brings a buzz back to the stadium.
“We’ve missed that for 14 months, and the atmosphere has been lacking from match-day. Obviously the bulk of the crowd on Sunday will be cheering for Exeter rather than ourselves, but in the context of the sport as a whole I just think it’s great that we’re getting that noise and involvement again from people who love the sport as much as we do.
“Some players will be affected more than others by the atmosphere. From my own perspective it never used to have too much of an impact on what I did on the field, but I realise everyone is different, and for some guys it will really make a tangible difference. From a team and a whole-club point of view it’s obviously fantastic just to have that excitement around the games, and we definitely felt that when we had our own crowd in against Northampton.”
Winning that game thanks to a second-half rally, Richards added: “Even when we went a try down to Northampton there was no stage of the game whereby I felt we would lose – purely because we had so much dominance in terms of possession and territory.
“It was just a case of keeping that pressure on and making it tell, and our bench in particular made a big impact.”
Well aware of the threat posed by the champions this weekend, the Falcons boss said: “Exeter on Sunday will be going full-bore for that home semi-final spot, and will not be taking their foot off the gas in any way, shape or form.
“They’re a good team, and even when by their standards they have an indifferent month they just get straight back on the horse. For me they’ve been the form team of the season in terms of consistency, even if on some occasions they haven’t got every result over the line as they would want.
“If I was a betting man I’d still put my money on them winning the Premiership title again, because they have a script and they stick to it incredibly well. It’s when they veer from that script that they have had the odd hiccup, but over the course of a season they stick to their plan better than any other team in my opinion.”
**Newcastle Falcons team to face Exeter Chiefs (Sunday, 1.30pm, Sandy Park, live on BT Sport 1)**
15 Joel Hodgson
14 Alex Tait
13 George Wacokecoke
12 Pete Lucock
11 Chidera Obonna
10 Toby Flood (captain)
9 Sam Stuart
1 Kyle Cooper
2 Robbie Smith
3 Rodney Ah You
4 Toby Salmon
5 Rob Farrar
6 Gary Graham
7 John Hardie
8 Carl Fearns
16 Charlie Maddison
17 Sam Lockwood
18 Mark Tampin
19 Will Montgomery
20 Tom Marshall
21 Louis Schreuder
22 Will Haydon-Wood
23 Zach Kerr
**Exeter Chiefs:** 15 Facundo Cordero, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds (captain), 9 Jack Maunder; 1 Alec Hepburn, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 3 Harry Williams, 4 Jannes Kirsten, 5 Sam Skinner, 6 Dave Ewers, 7 Jacques Vermeulen, 8 Sam Simmonds.
**Replacements:** 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Ben Moon, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Jonny Hill, 20 Sean Lonsdale, 21 Stu Townsend, 22 Harvey Skinner, 23 Stuart Hogg.
**Referee:** Andrew Jackson.