Dean Richards has warned title-chasing Sale Sharks that his newly promoted Newcastle were only operating at 60 per cent of their potential when signalling their return to the Gallagher Premiership with a 19-12 win at Bath on the opening weekend of the 2020/21 season. 

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Bath reached the Premiership play-offs last season but they could not shackle two-try Gary Graham, the Scotland flanker, and lost at home to a Newcastle team that is favourites to finish bottom this season.

Richards expects Sale to offer a greater challenge at Kingston Park on Friday after their opening weekend win over Northampton, which built on last season’s form that saw them hard on the heels of eventual champions Exeter before a Covid-19 outbreak brought their challenge to an abrupt halt.

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Sam Underhill on England’s defensive masterclass against Ireland

Richards said: “The squad is pretty realistic and understand where we are. We quickly parked the Bath game. It’s now about peaking at the right time for a Friday night game.

“We stuck to the script which opened up opportunities and we felt we played at about 60 per cent of our capacity. The really pleasing thing is that there is still 40 per cent to come.

“We fronted up physically in the pack at Bath and our conditioning we pretty good. The collective approach is crucial for us when we don’t have the superstars that we supposedly don’t and by doing what we have done in recent years we are in a better place than most in terms of bringing academy players through and promoting from within. 

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“Sale have recruited well, albeit mostly from South Africa, and are incredibly combative and well-drilled up front and will be a hard nut to crack.

“We were delighted with the win after eight or nine months without a game but you cannot rest on your laurels and we have to back it up against Sale. This will be a step up in terms of physicality and the two Ealing Trailfinders warm-up games were a God-send and as competitive as any Premiership match which stood us in good stead and got us back into the groove. It will be harder week after week from now on.”

The performance of Graham was central to Newcastle’s win at Bath but the No8’s intensely physical display didn’t surprise Richards who added: “He is Scottish for a start, brought up in Cumbria and with the family he comes from you expect him to be combative. It comes naturally to him. We will have to front up against Sale and we need to tighten up in certain areas.”

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