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Newcastle Falcons vs Leinster 'A'
British & Irish Cup Final
Kingston Park, Newcastle,
Friday, 17th May 2013, 19:30

Typical! After four years of trying, Leinster finally get to the final of this competition. However not only are they away from home for the third game running, their final is directly clashing with the Amlin Cup Final. What's more, because of that clash, Sky aren't showing any coverage of it whatsoever, after they screened the last three finals live. So if Leinster do manage a win, there will be precious few witnesses to it.

It won't matter to the players involved though. At this stage in most of their careers, they will love nothing more than to get their hands on a trophy, particularly one as tough to win as the British & Irish Cup. The injury situation in the senior squad this season has had a knock-on effect on the A squad with several academy and Under-20s players getting game-time they may not have gotten otherwise. With the understrength teams picked for both the Bristol quarter-final and especially the semi-final against Munster, their chances were largely written off.

However they showed real character both times to dig out a win and in particular relatively unknown players like Andrew Boyle, Adam Byrne, Conor Gilsenan, Steve Crosbie and Dan Leavy stood up to be counted. This experience will certainly stand to them in their career development in honing their competitive instinct. They won't be thinking of that at the moment though, all they'll be thinking of silverware.

They have a tough task ahead of them though in beating the Falcons at Kingston Park. Funded by the money of Newcastle United chairman Sir John Hall, Newcastle were the first English team to properly embrace professionalism. They went out and recruited some of the best players of the day in the likes of Gary Armstrong, Rob Andrew, Nick Popplewell, Doddie Weir, Tony Underwood and Va'aiga Tuigimala.

The spending provided an immediate return and they were English champions back in 1998. However the success in the league didn't last and the very next season they could only finish eighth in the table as the more traditional big clubs got their act together. Two Powergen Cups followed up shortly afterwards but they only managed sixth placed finishes in the league and, despite the arrival of young prodigy Jonny Wilkinson, the rot set in. In the last decade they became perennial relegation battlers and the axe finally dropped last season.

Yet, as we've seen before with the likes of Harlequins and Northampton, sometimes relegation can serve to rejuvenate an English club. Several players left, but they kept some good ones and recruited smartly and for the most part they cut a swathe through the championship. Newcastle won all bar one game they played in the regular part of the English Championship as well as winning all their pool matches in the British & Irish Cup. Despite being so dominant, the crazy structure of the Championship means they still have to sweat it out in the play-offs though.

They did lose to Leeds in the first leg of their semi-final but managed to recover in the second leg to win 34-30 on aggregate. However, after a season of mostly hammering everyone, it must have been a shock to the system to be run that close. They now face Bedford in another two-legged final, with the first leg next Thursday. There's no doubt that getting back into the Premiership is a massive priority for them, especially with the players they've committed to bringing in next season like Mike Blair and Phil Godman.

Of course this is the first time any Leinster team has encountered their Director of Rugby Dean Richards since he finished his three-year ban resulting from the "Bloodgate" scandal. Leinster have moved on to great success since that incident in the quarter-final versus Harlequins in 2009 and Richards has served his time. However his sneering arrogance in the post-match interview as he attempted to bluff his way out of trouble will always be remembered as well as his outrageously hypocritical quote "You have to know the rules. If they don't, it's not my problem."

Richards obviously has "a live and let live" attitude these days and it's interesting to see names in the squad list like Carlo Del Fava, Andrew Higgins and Alex Crockett, all of whom have had some controversy involving drugs of one type or another in their careers. Higgins and Crockett are both included in a team that is completely changed from the one that started the second leg against Leeds. Crockett is teamed with James Fitzpatrick in the centre while Jamie Sole and Zach Kibirge make up the back three with Higgins. Former Scotland international Rory Lawson is at scrum-half and he partners Joel Hodgson.

The experienced James Hudson captains the team from the second row alongside Sean Tomes. Veteran hooker Rob Vickers is teamed with James Hall and Scott Wilson in the front row and Ollie Stedman, Richard Mayhew and Chris York are the breakaways. Essentially Richards has picked his seconds team to play the Leinster seconds and with next week's games being of such importance for the future of the club, that's probably fair enough.

Leinster are able to bring back some players who missed the Munster game through injury. Brendan Macken comes back into the centre to partner Noel Reid, which is only right as he was in terrific try-scoring form in the pool stages. After pulling out late in the semi-final, Fionn Carr is restored to full back alongside academy wingers Sam Coghlan-Murray and Andrew Boyle. Cathal Marsh and Luke McGrath are once again the half-backs and after his excellent first start for the seniors against the Ospreys under his belt, McGrath in particular will be full of confidence.

The front row of Jack O'Connell, Aaron Dundon and Michael Bent is unchanged from the last day but with injuries ruling out Ben Marshall and Tom Denton, Tadhg Beirne and Mark Flanagan are brought into the second row. Jordi Murphy captains the team from number eight and with Dominic Ryan and Conor Gilsenan either side of him, it's a very exciting back row. There is plenty of potential impact on the bench in the shape of Martin Moore, Dan Leavy, Leo Auva'a, Jordan Coghlan and Adam Byrne. All in all, it's a pretty strong team in the circumstances.

Leinster would have been seen as big under-dogs going into this fixture, but looking at the teams named, they might just fancy their chances now. If they show as much bottle as they did in the last two rounds, there's no reason why they shouldn't do it either.

Team Lineups

Newcastle Falcons

Leinster 'A'
Teams Jamie Sole 15 Fionn Carr
Zach Kibirge 14 Sam Coghlan-Murray
Alex Crockett 13 Brendan Macken
James Fitzpatrick12 Noel Reid
Andrew Higgins 11 Andrew Boyle
Joel Hodgson 10 Cathal Marsh
Rory Lawson 9 Luke McGrath

James Hall 1 Jack O'Connell
Rob Vickers 2 Aaron Dundon
Scott Wilson 3 Michael Bent
Sean Tomes 4 Tadhg Beirne
James Hudson(C) 5 Mark Flanagan
Ollie Stedman 6 Dominic Ryan
Richard Mayhew 7 Conor Gilsenan
Chris York 8 Jordi Murphy (C)

Replacements Michael Mayhew 16 James Tracy
James Hallam 17 Martin Moore
Scott MacLeod 18 Leo Auva'a
Taiasina Tu'ifua 19 Daniel Leavy
Chris Pilgrim 20 Adam Griggs
Waisea Luveniyali 21 Jordan Coghlan
Michael Tait 22 Adam Byrne

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-05-16