Dean Richards says Newcastle are ready for their Aviva Premiership play-off

Rugby Union

Dean Richards says Newcastle are "switched on and ready to roll" for their Aviva Premiership play-off debut on Saturday.

The Falcons, Premiership champions in pre play-off days 20 years ago, face title holders Exeter at Sandy Park, with a place in next week's Twickenham final against Saracens or Wasps on offer.

Newcastle finished 22 points behind table-toppers Exeter following the regular Premiership season, but they head to Devon after winning more than half their league away games this term, including victories over Leicester, Bath and Gloucester.

Exeter are firm favourites to reach Twickenham for a third successive season and they are unbeaten since mid-February, yet Newcastle were one of only five clubs to defeat them in the Premiership this term.

"The players have been excited ever since they knew they were going to be in the semis, so it's actually all about curbing it and making sure we get that focus on the important things, and I don't think that will be an issue at all," Newcastle rugby director Richards said.

"The boys are switched on and ready to roll. There is nothing to fear at all.

"Everyone is tipping Exeter to win. We've got absolutely nothing to lose going down there, and we will give it our all and see what happens.

"These little percentages here and there make a massive difference when you come to semi-finals.

"You can always get away with it throughout the regular season, but when you come down to the semi-finals and final stages, that accuracy really, really counts."

Fly-half Toby Flood is back for Newcastle after six weeks out because of a hand injury, with Richards making eight changes from the side beaten by Wasps a fortnight ago. Other starters include hooker Kyle Cooper and lock Calum Green.

England international flanker Don Armand will captain Exeter, with the Chiefs line-up also featuring starts for England wing Jack Nowell, fly-half Joe Simmonds and his brother Sam at number eight.

Exeter head coach Rob Baxter said: "I don't think there is any way you can say the mood in the camp is like it is before any other Premiership game.

"You can try and talk like that, but the reality is that everybody knows it is not. It is a Premiership semi-final and everyone knows it will be different."

Wasps are boosted by England back-row forward Nathan Hughes starting at Allianz Park on Saturday after recovering from a knee injury suffered during this season's Six Nations, but flanker James Haskell is absent due to a foot injury.

Wasps rugby director Dai Young said: "Saracens are obviously a top side. Their record over the last few years speaks for itself, so we know we will have to produce our best to beat them.

"I am confident we can score points, even against their legendary defence. It will be a big battle up front, and we know we have to stop their ball-carriers and win the battle of the gain-line, with and without the ball."

England number eight Billy Vunipola will start for Saracens following an injury-hit season, while Vunipola's back-row colleague Jackson Wray makes his 200th first team appearance.

Elsewhere, England lock George Kruis returns to action, with wing Chris Wyles replacing Liam Williams, who has a shoulder injury, and Alex Lozowski is back at outside centre.

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