MICKY WARD is backing the Newcastle Falcons pack to rise to the challenge when they take on reigning Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs tomorrow afternoon.

Falcons have made their best start to a Premiership season for 20 years, but Dean Richards’ side face arguably their toughest test so far as they head to Sandy Park.

Exeter are no longer the Premiership’s surprise packages having claimed the title last season, instead they are seasoned European campaigners with a proven pedigree.

Falcons will have to match the Chiefs’ formidable forward power, but Ward, who is responsible for drilling the Newcastle pack, is confident his players will cope.

“It’ll definitely be a physical challenge down there,” said the Falcons forward coach. “We’ve already had a few of those this season, but this is the one I’ve always been most excited for, and our pack has gone well so far. They’ve got the bit between their teeth and they’ve really been testing teams, but what better place to do it than away at the champions?

“Exeter have got some big lumps in their pack and everyone knows what they’re about, so we’ll have to be right on it. They love to drive line-outs, they love to scrummage and that’s the stuff we want to do as well. Our line-out and maul defence is something we really pride ourselves on, we’ve gone well there this season and I’m backing us to come through a big challenge there at the weekend.”

Trevor Davison will make his first Premiership start in the Falcons front row, having signed from Blaydon this summer. The 25-year-old prop has featured from the bench in all five games this season.

Fly-half Toby Flood could be set to make the first competitive appearance of his second spell at the club after re-joining the Falcons from Toulouse.  The 60-times-capped England international has missed the opening chunk of the campaign with a hamstring injury, but is named amongst the replacements.

“It’s good to see us doing what I’d hoped for a number of years we’d be doing,” said Ward, of Falcons’ best start to a league season since 1997-98. “It has been building for a while now, we’ve been a little bit better each season and it’s pleasing to see things we’ve been doing in training working on the field at the moment.

“The lads who were already here are maturing as a group, but the key for me is that the squad as a whole is stronger. We have depth in every position, and the team that we ran against our first team in training on Thursday would be easily capable of playing an Aviva Premiership game.

“We have internationals, experienced Premiership players and some great young talents who aren’t currently in the starting side, but what they’re doing every day in training is driving up the standards across the board because the lads currently holding the shirts know they have to be bang on the money to keep their place.

“As much as it’s not a massively changed team from last season guys know their place is genuinely up for grabs, and that’s probably not something we’ve been able to say for a while. The lads who are waiting in the wings are of similar quality, and that’s the thing we’ve been building. The players have always been trying but it’s a case of how much they are now being challenged every single day in training.”

Newcastle Falcons: Tait, van der Merwe, Harris, Socino, Goneva, Willis, Takulua; Davison, Socino, Welsh, Green, Witty, M Wilson, Welch, Latu.

Replacements: Cooper, Vickers, Ilnicki, Robinson, Hogg, Stuart, Flood, Matavesi.