Falcons hand debut to Tongan international

Newcastle Falcons hand a debut to Tongan international flanker Josh Afu at Kingston Park on Sunday, as they host French side Albi in the second round of the Amlin Challenge Cup (kick-off 3pm).


The former Queensland Red forms part of a side containing six changes from the one which sent the Falcons to the top of the Pool 5 standings last Saturday, courtesy of their bonus point victory at Italian side Petrarca Padova.


England Under-20s forward Will Welch makes a home debut on the openside flank after an impressive cameo last weekend in Italy, while James Hudson slots into the second row as Samoan international Filipo Levi reverts to No.8.


The only other change to the pack sees Matt Thompson back at hooker, while behind the scrum Jimmy Gopperth takes over from Rob Miller at fly half and Charlie Amesbury slots in at fullback with Alex Tait ruled out injured.


Director of rugby Steve Bates is without a handful of his first team squad for this weekend, with Jon Golding, Rob Vickerman, Tim Swinson, Chris Micklewood and Michael Tait among those to be sidelined.


Looking to build on the result, if not necessarily the performance, last Saturday, Bates said: “The Padova game was unique in many ways, not least the conditions in which it was played, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen rain of that like before in my whole life.


“It was virtually impossible to play the game, which was a real shame, but nonetheless the boys showed great character and togetherness in pulling themselves through.

 

“Despite the immediate reaction after the final whistle being one of disappointment at aspects of the performance, on reflection I’m a little bit more philosophical now about the achievement of actually coming away with a win and a bonus point to go top of the group.”

Looking to Sunday’s tussle against an uncompromising Albi side from South-West France, Bates said: “They might be bottom of the Top14, but from the tapes we’ve watched and having looked at their results they have actually been competitive even against some of the very top teams in France.


“They very nearly beat Toulouse away a few weeks ago, and they’ve also claimed bonus points from teams like Racing Metro as well as beating Bayonne last month.

 

“Their league position, to me, is almost an irrelevance, because from the videos we’ve seen they look like a very strong forward pack with plenty of pace out wide.

 

“They will be a very tough, uncompromising sort of opposition with a real physical threat, and if we go into the game with any other expectations then we will come unstuck.

 

“They have had a few guys suspended this weekend for disciplinary issues from a recent Top 14 game, but the players filling those gaps will be just as keen to slot in and prove a point to the coaches.

“It’s a long held belief that French teams don’t travel well, but I’m not so certain that is always the case.


“Brive became the first French team ever to win at Kingston Park last season with a try in the 79th minute against us, and if you just assume that the French won’t travel then you open yourself up to allsorts of repercussions.

 

“We’ve got to be careful in guarding against complacency, but I have to say that after last weekend’s fright in Italy the attitude from the players has been absolutely fantastic.”

Determined to continue his side’s winning momentum, Bates said: “We’re really confident that this team can be competitive, and although we haven’t quite put it together so far in the way that we would like, we can still be a very exciting side.


“What we would really like to do is prove that to our home supporters, and to sho

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