LAST season, Newcastle Falcons achieved their highest Aviva Premiership finish for 11 years. After a summer of successful strengthening that has seen the likes of DTH van der Merwe, Maxime Mermoz and Toby Flood arrive at Kingston Park, Dean Richards is happy to be setting his sights even higher ahead of the start of the new campaign.

Falcons kick off the new season with a home game against Worcester Warriors tonight, and will be desperate to build on the momentum generated last term as they claimed ten league victories to finish in eighth position.

They were only one place short of a Champions Cup play-off spot by the time they completed their final game in May, and after a summer of further rebuilding, hopes are high that Falcons could mount a sustained challenge for a return to European rugby’s elite stage.

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The squad looks deeper than it has for a number of years, and while the biggest clubs in the Premiership continue to move forward too, there is a tangible sense of optimism ahead of Newcastle’s return to action.

“The feeling in the camp is great and everyone has rightly talked about that, but we’ve still got to go out there and deliver,” said director of rugby Dean Richards, who is embarking on his sixth season in charge at Kingston Park.

“Goodwill and good feeling doesn’t get you an Aviva Premiership win. It’s a big part of what we are about, but you’ve still got to turn up on the day and do it. Last weekend against Edinburgh (when Falcons lost in a pre-season friendly) proved that, but the unity and team ethic we have will certainly help pull us through at times during the season.

“The season lasts for nearly 40 weeks, so we’re not going to get overly emotional about the first few games. We know they’re important and are throwing everything at this first block, but it’s the long term that concerns us and how we end up doing over the course of the season.

“Worcester and Sale first up are games where we need to be at our best, but games which are achievable. Saracens in America is a cup final in many ways, and everyone knows strange things can happen in cup finals. We’re looking forward to all three and will take from them what we can, and it’s all about working hard to implement what we’ve been doing in training.”

Last season’s games between Newcastle and Worcester could hardly have been closer, with Falcons going down by two points in their away fixture before claiming a two-point victory at Kingston Park.

The two clubs have been closely-matched for a number of seasons, generally finishing within a couple of places of each other in the table, and with a trip to Sale coming up in seven days’ time, another team who tend to finish in a similar position, Falcons should get a good early indication of where they stand.

Their pre-season campaign finished on a disappointing note with last weekend’s defeat to Edinburgh, but earlier wins over Doncaster, Nottingham and Rotherham showcased their abilities in a much more positive light.

“Our pre-season started well, and we scored a lot of tries against Championship opposition,” said Richards. “We were a little disappointed to lose narrowly against Edinburgh last weekend but we created a lot of opportunities, and in many ways that game was the kick up the backside we needed going into the Aviva Premiership.

“Worcester will provide a very similar approach to the game as Edinburgh did, and it will be quite a battle. I’m pleased we played against Edinburgh when we did because it has been ideal preparation.

“Worcester will have a few tricks up their sleeve in terms of what they do from first phase but they won’t change too much from what they showed last season, especially towards the back end when Gary Gold came in.”

Simon Hammersley will make his first Premiership appearance in more than nine months tonight, after missing more than half of last season through an anterior cruciate ligament tear.

Fijian centre Josh Matavesi will make his competitive Falcons debut, with Sonatane Takulua starting at scrum-half after signing a new four-year deal earlier this week.

Flood and van der Merwe miss out with minor niggles, but Mark Wilson will line up in the back row after a summer that saw him make his senior England debut in Argentina.

“We’re going out there to score tries,” said Richards. “We’ve put together a squad capable of doing that, and there’s a huge amount of excitement around the club.”

Newcastle Falcons (vs Worcester): Hammersley, Tait, Harris, Matavesi, Agulla, Hodgson, Takulua; Vickers, Cooper, Welsh, Green, Witty, M Wilson, Welch, Chick.

Replacements: Lawson, Mavinga, Davison, Cavubati, Latu, Stuart, Willis, Socino.