AFTER the interruption of the British & Irish Cup, Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards is delighted to be returning to the cut and thrust of Championship action this weekend.
Falcons travel to Leeds Carnegie tomorrow lunch-time anticipating one of their toughest tests of a season that has still not contained a single defeat.
It is a month since Newcastle tackled a league game, with the winter weather exacerbating the disruption caused by the cup programme, and while the promotion battle will not be decided until the end-of-season play-offs kick in, Richards is keen to start generating some positive momentum again.
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"I'm really looking forward to this weekend's game," he said. "And Leeds will be the biggest challenge that the boys will have faced since Bedford Blues away.
"Leeds are a good side, they are coached well and speaking to a few boys down there, they are really up for this game.
"With the change of venue and kick-off time (12pm at Otley RFC), they will feel confident that they can turn us over, but I think it's a great opportunity for us to show what we're all about."
Richards has made two changes to the side that won at Cross Keys last weekend, with experienced internationals Rory Lawson and Taiasina Tu'ifua returning to the starting line-up.
Tynedale are missing some key men as they travel to Cinderford for a rearranged National One fixture, but Matthew Charters' return from a three-month absence at least tempers some of the damage caused by Ollie Stedman's recent move to Newcastle Falcons.
"We are struggling for numbers again," said Tynedale chairman of rugby John Shotton. "We lost Graeme Dunn with concussion last weekend at Coventry and Andy Murray went off injured so will not be available.
"We have 11 players who have played five games or more for us this season out injured, but we will battle on."
Blaydon host Blackheath looking to consolidate their lofty position of second in the National One table.
Billingham are set for their highest ever league finish and will rise to fifth in National Three North if they beat Birkenhead Park.
Youngster Joe Arrowsmith is pushing for a starting spot, with skipper Joe Evans satisfied with his side's progress.
"We're extremely happy with our position, but are always looking to move forward," said Evans. "We want to finish as high as we can, get young lads into the team and look to the future.
"We have a strong squad with good youngsters pushing for places, which is just what we want."
Percy Park entertain Waterloo, while West Hartlepool travel to Kendal beset by injury problems and availability issues.
Andrew Foreman is facing a long-term lay-off after injuring his knee last weekend, but Ryan Painter is available at scrum-half.
Jon Boatman will return at number eight after missing last weekend's game because of family commitments, but Michael Hogan and Anthony Carr are unavailable and Ian Pinchen is ill.
In North One East, Middlesbrough's battle against relegation takes them to Morley. Simon O'Farrell returns at fly-half, with David Hinchley and Adam Marron forming a new partnership in the second row.
Darlington entertain Pocklington, Durham City take on Malton and Norton, with Northern hosting Morpeth.