Newcastle Falcons have rung the changes for Friday’s Aviva Premiership visit of Sale Sharks to Kingston Park Stadium with eight new faces coming into the starting XV.
A vital all-northern clash sees the fifth-placed Falcons hosting the team sat one point and one place behind them, with the result crucial in terms of Premiership semi-final qualification.
Flanker Gary Graham returns after injuring his neck during England training in early February, the 25-year-old having played a quarter of Monday night’s 37-12 victory over A-League leaders Northampton.
Ally Hogg joins Graham in a freshened-up back-row, Will Witty replacing Sean Robinson in the second row as the Falcons look to preserve a record which has seen them unbeaten at Kingston Park Stadium in more than four and a half months in all competitions.
Michael Young returns from a leg injury to start at scrum-half exactly a decade on from his Newcastle Falcons debut, Joel Hodgson replacing Toby Flood at fly-half. Hodgson is currently the most accurate goal-kicker in the Aviva Premiership with a strike rate of 92.86%, and also tops the European Challenge Cup charts after kicking 12 from 12 during the Falcons’ run to the semi-finals.
Juan Pablo Socino starts for the first time since February in place of Josh Matavesi, the Argentinean centre having been part of the Falcons squad which defeated Sale Sharks 13-12 when the teams last met at the AJ Bell Stadium in September.
Simon Hammersley replaces Alex Tait at full-back, the only other change seeing Scott Lawson in for Kyle Cooper at hooker.
Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards said: “Friday night football at Kingston Park, for me, is the best thing out there.
“The atmosphere I think is the best on the circuit, the boys love going out there and the crowd really get them going. We haven’t played a Premiership home game here since the middle of February, there is a lot of excitement within the group and it should be a great occasion.”
Making no attempt to play down the stakes, Richards said: “The way things are poised in the Premiership table means Friday is set up to be an absolutely cracking game with a huge amount riding on it.
“We’ve taken a few bumps from last weekend and put some fresh bodies out there, it will be an interesting game and it certainly won’t be an easy one against a good Sale side who enjoyed a late win at home to Wasps last Friday. Sale will be on a high from that result, they’re playing some good rugby and I think it’s great for the north that you’ve got the both of us in the top half of the table.
“For us it’s a must-win game in terms of keeping our top-four hopes alive, and if we don’t win then we can almost kiss the semi-finals goodbye. That’s not a mathematical certainty, but you have to be realistic about the fact it will be extremely difficult to make the top four if we don’t win this one.
“Sale have a very good scrum-half in Faf de Klerk who really controls things and they have some gas outside as well. Their forward pack deserves a lot of respect, they have been going well and we’ll definitely be made to work for everything.”
Aiming to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat at Worcester, the director of rugby added: “We didn’t really get out of the blocks down there, we didn’t control the territory and Worcester did that exceptionally well.
“We were in our own half for about 65-70% of the time, the stats speak volumes about how Worcester controlled that and it was very disappointing from our point of view. It explains why we came away with a loss rather than a win, and you can’t score when you don’t have the ball.
“I think Worcester are a good side who shouldn’t really be down there at second-bottom, and they played well on the day. They’ve obviously got the ability, and while it was a disappointing performance from us you also have to give Worcester a lot of credit for turning in arguably their best 80 minutes of the season.”
Tickets for Friday’s game are available by calling 0871 226 6060.
Newcastle Falcons team to face Sale Sharks (Friday, 7.45pm, Kingston Park Stadium, live on BT Sport)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Joel Hodgson
9 Michael Young
1 Sam Lockwood
2 Scott Lawson
3 Scott Wilson
4 Calum Green
5 Will Witty
6 Will Welch (captain)
7 Gary Graham
8 Ally Hogg
16 Santiago Socino
17 Rob Vickers
18 Trevor Davison
19 Evan Olmstead
20 Ryan Burrows
21 Sonatane Takulua
22 Maxime Mermoz
23 Alex Tait
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys