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Preview: Newcastle v Gloucester

20th December 2007 14:53

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toby flood

Gate Open: Toby Flood returns to the fray

Newcastle Falcons will welcome Toby Flood back to the starting line-up for Sunday's Guinness Premiership visit of Gloucester.

The England centre came on from the bench to score one of the Falcons' five tries in last weekend's comprehensive 39-0 victory over Connacht, and is one of just two personnel changes ahead of Sunday's encounter against the Guinness Premiership leaders.

The other sees Jon Golding take the place of Joe McDonnell at loosehead prop, while there are a number of positional changes in the back line as Mathew Tait drops to full-back, Tom May moves to the right wing and Jamie Noon pushes out one place to outside centre.

Falcons coaching and technical director Steve Bates said: "In terms of taking the game to the opposition, last weekend was up there with our very best performances of the season, and the test for us now is to reach the next level and add that elusive consistency and precision to our play."

Welcoming Flood back in to the line-up, he said: "Looking specifically at the backs we have a fantastic group of players at this club right now, the downside being that only seven of them can be on the field at any one time.

"Tim Visser is extremely unlucky to miss out this week because I thought he contributed well and scored a good try last Sunday, but he is on the bench waiting to come on and add something to the play when he gets his chance.

"We need to threaten Gloucester all around the field, and with both Jonny Wilkinson and Toby Flood in the starting XV it means we have a great passing and kicking game capable of stretching any team."

Hailing the influence of Flood at 12 and a resurgent Wilkinson at fly-half, Bates said: "Jonny and Toby work very well together, as we saw in the second half against Connacht when they both scored tries, and they have the capability of opening up any defence.

"They do interchange positions well during the game, they have that ability, and I'm sure we'll see that again this weekend. In modern rugby the twelve has a massive role to play, communicating, using his vision and exploiting space, so to have two guys in that area who are so proficient is a real plus for us."

With Wilkinson in particular looking sharp last weekend, Bates added: "I thought Jonny was outstanding against Connacht.

"I know there's lots of talk about various young fly-halves coming through at the moment, but you'd have to go a very, very long way to usurp Jonny.

"He is in excellent form. He's enjoying his rugby, he's in magnificent physical shape, totally dominated the game last Sunday and he will be a key man again for us against a very good Gloucester side.

"You just have to look at the guy every single day in training, which people on the outside don't see. He's in absolutely sensational condition and he has a huge amount to offer.

"He's an outstanding player and he can turn games, so what we have to do as a team is make sure that he has that opportunity. What he has is great support outside him in the backs, and this season in addition to that we now have an increasingly solid base up front from which to build a game. That is a good mix for Jonny to shine, and I'm sure we will see that again on Sunday."

Meanwhile, Gareth Cooper will start his second Guinness Premiership match of the season at Kingston Park in place of Rory Lawson, one of three changes to the side that beat Bourgoin 51-27 at Kingsholm last Saturday.

Marco Bortolami returns to the second row as captain in place of Peter Buxton, who moves to the bench and Alasdair Strokosch starts at number six which means Luke Narraway shifts to the openside in place of Akapusi Qera, who is ruled out with a slight wrist injury.

The rest of Ryan's line-up remains intact for what potentially could be one of the most exciting games of the season between two sides stacked with English talent.

"It is impossible to believe we can operate with the same group of players relentlessly throughout the season because we have been through a very intense period of matches and we are not going to get the best from a guy like Pete Buxton if we simply play and play him," Ryan said.

"We are bringing in an international captain and outstanding player in Marco Bortolami to the second row, Gareth Cooper has looked sharp in his appearances from the bench and Strokosch gives us a work ethic and explosive power we will require.

"Newcastle away from home is one of the most demanding fixtures in the Premiership - they have an outstanding spine to their team and world class players in key areas - it is a hugely important game for both of us.

"I think both teams like to try and play rugby in the right way and that is a great endorsement to both clubs and also the Premiership."

Bortolami's last start was against the Dragons in the EDF Energy Cup at the end of November and he will partner Alex Brown at lock. The front row of Nick Wood, hooker Olivier Azam and tight-head Carlos Nieto remains intact.

Narraway, who has operated at numbers eight and six this season switches to the openside flank, Strokosch comes in at six and Gareth Delve will start his fifth successive game at number eight.

Outside Cooper, Ryan Lamb will wear number 10 and will face Jonny Wilkinson, Anthony Allen and Mike Tindall feature in midfield, while Lesley Vainikolo, the Premiership's leading try scorer with seven, James Simpson-Daniel and Iain Balshaw complete the back three.

The bench is again made into a four-three forward split. Andy Titterrell and Patrice Collazo are the front row replacements and Will James and Buxton the back five options.

Scrum-half Lawson, utility back Willie Walker, who scored against Bourgoin last Saturday and Leon Lloyd complete the three-quarter options.

Form: Newcastle Falcons have suffered three straight defeats in the Guinness Premiership since beating Leeds 21-19 at Kingston Park on 5 October. The Falcons' only home defeat in any competition since April was 20-33 to Bath in the Premiership on 21 October. Gloucester Rugby, the Guinness Premiership pace setters, have won their last six matches in all competitions and are the Guinness Premiership's best away team with 15 league points from their four road trips so far. The two sides have already met in the EDF Energy Cup on 27 October, where they drew 18-all at Kingsholm.

Newcastle Falcons:15 Mathew Tait, 14 Tom May, 13 Jamie Noon (captain), 12 Toby Flood, 11 John Rudd, 10 Jonny Wilkinson, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Russell Winter, 7 Ben Woods, 6 Geoff Parling, 5 Mark Sorenson, 4 Andy Perry, 3 Carl Hayman, 2 Matt Thompson, 1 Jon Golding.

Replacements: 16 Andy Long, 17 David Wilson, 18 Sean Tomes, 19 Brent Wilson, 20 James Grindal, 21 Tim Visser, 22 Ollie Phillips.

Gloucester: 15 Iain Balshaw, 14 James Simpson-Daniel, 13 Mike Tindall, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Lesley Vainikolo, 10 Ryan Lamb, 9 Gareth Cooper, 8 Gareth Delve, 7 Luke Narraway, 6 Alasdair Strokosch, 5 Alex Brown, 4 Marco Bortolami (c), 3 Carlos Nieto, 2 Olivier Azam, 1 Nick Wood.

Replacements: 16 Andy Titterrell, 17 Patrice Collazo, 18 Will James, 19 Peter Buxton, 20 Rory Lawson, 21 Willie Walker, 22 Leon Lloyd.

Date: Sunday, 23 December

Kick-off: 15:00 GMT

Venue: Kingston Park

Referee: tbc

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