DEAN RICHARDS will send Newcastle into Aviva Premiership semi-final battle with Exeter confident they have set the bar for a fresh challenge next season.

The unfancied Falcons surprised many by muscling their way into the top four to set up the showdown with the reigning champions at Sandy Park on Saturday, and director of rugby Richards admits they are ahead of schedule in their five-year plan.

However, he is equally aware of the vagaries of the game and knows even the most detailed of blueprints can be torn to shreds by the bounce of a ball or a tight decision.

Asked if Newcastle had established a platform upon which to build whatever happens at the weekend, Richards replied: “It sets a bar, doesn't it?

“We need to learn from how we got to this stage and if not, we'll slide back down the table. It's understanding what's got us into this situation and taking that on board and moving forward from there.

“Everybody's said it's one of those seasons whereby next year, the top four has to be right up there and perhaps even top two.

“But if you look at how many games we've won in the last minute or by one or two points, you only need three or four of those over a season to be reversed the other way and we'd probably have finished seventh or eighth.

“Sometimes those results come as a result of a bounce of the ball or a referee's decision or an injury, sometimes it's a bit of luck and it can go against you, and those poor decisions or the bounce of the ball can make the difference between finishing fourth and seventh or eighth, so tight is the Premiership.

“A lot of people don't appreciate that.”

The Falcons will head south with a victory over the Chiefs under their belts when the sides met at Kingston Park in January, but having lost twice in Devon this season, 34-24 in the league in October and 20-17 in the Anglo-Welsh Cup five months later.

As a result, Exeter will go into the game as big favourites, but that will not faze Richards or his players.

The former England number eight said: “There's nothing to fear at all. Everyone's tipping Exeter to win, so we'll go down there, I wouldn't say without a care in the world, but we've got absolutely nothing to lose going down there and we'll give it our all and see what happens.”

Richards' biggest selection issue is at fly-half with Toby Flood and Joel Hodgson battling hand and knee injuries respectively, and it was Fijian centre Josh Matavesi who lined up at 10 against Wasps in their last outing.

He said: “We're hopeful. We've had boys out there training today and there was no contact in training, so certain guys were dropped in and out.

“We're trying to assess on a daily basis what their injury situation is and we'll make that call late on Thursday.”