Twelve years on from his European debut, Alex Crockett will be at the centre of Newcastle Falcons’ attack in Italy this afternoon.
The 32-year-old was part of the Bath squad which lifted the Amlin Challenge Cup back in 2008, and makes his 36th European appearance as the Falcons continue their push towards the quarter-finals with a Pool C date at Calvisano.
The competition may well be an afterthought in comparison to the Premiership, but for Crockett and the like it remains a light at the end of a tunnel after endless weekends sat in the stand or holding a tackle-bag.
“Nobody wants to be a professional trainer,” said the former England Saxons centre, a Bath player from 2001 to 2009, now in the final year of his Newcastle contract after joining from Worcester.
“The Challenge Cup is a great competition for players who perhaps aren’t getting so much rugby in the Premiership.
“It gives us some exposure, and while some people might say it is a second-tier tournament is is vital in helping bring through the younger players at the club.
“These matches are the biggest games of the season for some of the boys, and it is a chance for us to impress the management.”
All signs point towards a straight shoot-out between the Falcons and French club Brive for the one-and-only quarter-final spot available from the group, but the challenge of Calvisano cannot be altogether dismissed as they sit second in the Italian domestic championship.
Beaten 37-15 at Kingston Park last weekend by a Newcastle side finally regaining their scoring stride, Crockett said: “They were fairly competitive, and scoring some tries was welcome given the chat about us struggling for tries in the league.
“It was more difficult than it possibly looked from the stands because the ball was slippery and the wind got up, and it was a tough game to get into.
“We cannot be too hard on ourselves because we got the bonus point, but we know there was plenty to work on.
“Our discipline was poor, we didn’t hold onto the ball at times and we took the wrong option in the kick-versus-pass process.
“We know all of that, but when you get five points from a game it is also important you acknowledge the positives too.”
He added: “It was a good exercise for us to get a bit of confidence up, but I would expect them to be a different proposition over in Italy.
“They will be a bit more physical, compete harder at the breakdown and most likely just show a bit more pride.
“The crowd really get into it in Italy; they love their rugby and it will be a tough afternoon for us.
“When I was at Bath we drew Treviso three years back-to-back in the Heineken Cup, and they can make life difficult for sides over there.”
Skippering the side last weekend, Crockett revealed a relatively relaxed leadership style in comparison to head-banging forwards of yesteryear.
“I am fairly laid back, but I get a little bit more intense the closer we get to kick-off,” he said.
“I certainly wouldn’t want to bang heads with any of the lads because there are some pretty big blokes in that changing room, and I would definitely lose that battle!
“I tend to just keep it pretty calm, but if I see anyone off the pace and not putting it in then you have to get into them.
“I captained Bath for a season, and it is a role I enjoy. Hopefully I added something to the team through my leadership, and it was a proud moment for me running out there as Newcastle captain.”
Even with club skipper Will Welch restored to the side tomorrow afternoon Crockett’s experience will be put to good use, guiding the next generation. “My role really is to try and help some of the younger guys along, although naturally I want to state my own case for the coaches and try to force my way into the thinking for the league games,” he said.
“You need to have a mix in a team, and it would be no use if we just put 15 youngsters out there against a side like Calvisano.
“You need to have that balance between a few older heads and some of the younger lads’ enthusiasm, and we will work our way into it as a group.”
Facing four flights in three days this weekend, the Falcons must regroup quickly as they prepare for the longest trip of the Premiership season a week today; in fact the longest trip of any professional sporting team in mainland England as they travel the 371 miles to Exeter Chiefs.
“Calvisano is a long trip for the boys with four flights and a bus ride at the other end, but we have been doing it long enough now and the coaches know how to look after us,” he said.
“It is just part of being a professional rugby player, and when you are young you can just bounce straight back up after a game and a long travel.
“For some of the older guys you have your own routine to get over it, but we take masseurs and physios so we are always very well looked after.”