Rugby Union: Newcastle ready to feel French heat

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The Independent Online
Newcastle flew into the heartland of French rugby yesterday, bracing themselves for a hostile reception and their toughest match of the season.

Rob Andrew's side, excelling themselves in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, take on Agen this afternoon for a place in the final of the European Conference, the second-tier international tournament in its second season. With Colomiers and Stade Francais meeting in the other semi-final, the Falcons carry British hopes, with the promise of a final in Leeds on 1 February.

The Frenchmen have won all seven of their Conference ties so far, including crushing victories over Bristol and Ebbw Vale, while Newcastle, although unbeaten in the Premiership, slipped up 32-28 in Biarritz, which effectively cost them home advantage in the last four.

"We would have preferred to be at home but we're paying for the mistake of losing in Biarritz," Newcastle captain Dean Ryan said. "The French at home are a different proposition and we know how fired up they are going to be."

The 29-strong squad that flew out of Newcastle Airport yesterday included 16 internationals, though three of them - Va'aiga Tuigamala, Tim Stimpson and Nick Popplewell - face late fitness tests after missing last Sunday's 37-27 win over Gloucester through injury.

"We fear Newcastle, even at home," the Agen coach, Jacques Graton, said. "We played them during the summer in a friendly and lost 13-9 and we have great admiration for their style of play. Tuigamala, Andrew and Tait are players we are very wary of."