LEAVING the Parc des Princes, in the wake of Newcastle Falcons’ 48-8 defeat to Stade Francais in the quarter-finals of 2005’ Heineken Cup, Rob Andrew reflected on what the future might hold.

“We have to learn the lessons from today,” said the then head coach. “When we’re next in the competition, we have to be stronger than this.” Thirteen seasons on, and we are about to discover whether Andrew’s hopes have been realised.

A lot has happened to Newcastle Falcons in almost a decade-and-a-half, not least Andrew’s departure and the arrival of Dean Richards as director of rugby, not to mention the changing of the guard that saw Semore Kurdi take over at Kingston Park. In all that time, though, one thing has been unaltered.

Falcons have not dined at European rugby’s top table since that Parisian pounding in 2005. On Sunday, however, in another French city, Toulon, all that will change.

The Heineken Cup has become the European Champions Cup, but from a Falcons perspective, the competition has not lost its fizz. The fact that the final will be staged at St James’ Park next May provides an added edge to Newcastle’s return to Europe’s top-tier competition, but it would have been a hugely significant event anyway. After some difficult times that featured a brief flirtation with the Championship, Falcons are back where they will feel they belong.

“Coming through the youth set-up here, to now be playing Champions Cup rugby for the Falcons is an absolutely amazing feeling,” said North-East native Michael Young, who will be making his 39th European appearance if selected for Sunday’s opener at Toulon’s Stade Mayol.

“I think a big part of us being in the Champions Cup is trying to reward the fans who have not been able to watch us in this competition for (nearly) 14 years now.

“It’s a great occasion for the lads who will be involved in the game, but also for the supporters. To have a trip to Toulon and then Montpellier at home (next Sunday) is a great way to start, and I hope our fans will enjoy watching us make that step up into the top-level competition.”

Falcons qualified for the Champions Cup by finishing in fourth position last season, but they will make their return to the competition sitting in bottom place in the table after winning just one of their opening six league games this term.

“Our results this season have been very disappointing, and let’s not try to sugar-coat that, but the Champions Cup is a chance for us to park that for a few weeks and make a bit of a fresh start,” said Young.

“We can progress as a team during this next window, and the boys are certainly working hard. We just need to turn those small margins our way when we’re playing in such tight games.”

Falcons return to the Champions Cup against a Toulon side that won the trophy as recently as 2015, but currently sit in 12th position in France’s Top 14.

“Toulon is an incredible place to watch rugby. I went there with Leicester for the quarter-finals in 2013, one of the years Toulon won the competition,” said Young. “I was a non-playing reserve on that occasion but the atmosphere was fantastic.”