Playing at St James’ Park might be a first for Newcastle Falcons as a club, but for No 8 Nili Latu Saturday’s game will see memories flooding back from Rugby World Cup 2015 when he led out Tonga against world champions New Zealand.
Latu and club-mate Takulua were both part of the Tongan side which offered spirited resistance against the All Blacks at a sold-out St James’ Park, and the prospect of running out there again for The Big One is getting the juices going as the Falcons aim for a fifth straight Aviva Premiership win over Northampton Saints.
“It was just an unreal atmosphere during the Rugby World Cup,” said Latu, Tonga’s most-capped player of all time and the man who scored the winning try the last time Newcastle and Northampton met.
“St James’ Park is a stadium with a lot of history, even though it has been developed, and I like that side of it. You can really feel the history when you’re there and Newcastle United Football Club have done a great job in terms of not losing that identity, even though they’ve done a lot of building work to it.
“I felt lucky to play there with Tonga during the Rugby World Cup, I’m excited to go back and it’s great that it will be with the Falcons. The noise was incredible, people were just turning up to have a party and I’m expecting it to be the same this Saturday.”
In excess of 25,000 tickets have already been sold for The Big One, more than doubling the Falcons’ previous record home crowd of 11,750 from their 1998 Premiership victory over Bath at Gateshead International Stadium.
And while Latu insists the additional support is most welcome, he is also at pains to say it must not become a distraction from the job in hand as the Falcons sit fourth in the table with five rounds to go.
“The first thing is to just concentrate on the job, which is winning a game of Premiership rugby,” he said.
“We’ve been very good at doing that this season, and there’s no reason why playing at a different stadium should throw us off the scent. The atmosphere and the environment are just additional positive factors rather than anything that should distract us, and when guys look back on their careers it will be one of their really special days.
“We’ve got a lot to play for on Saturday with being fourth in the Aviva Premiership and really closing in on a play-off spot, so that’s the main focus for us rather than any of the other stuff going on around the game. We’ve been playing well as a team, there’s a lot of excitement around and guys are just looking forward to it.”
Popping up with a late winner when Newcastle defeated the Saints at Franklin’s Gardens on December 1, Latu added: “I guess I was just in the right place at the right time.
“Hopefully we don’t have to leave it until the last two minutes this time, but on the flip side we’ve shown a lot of times this season that we’re capable of grinding out victories in close finishes, which is not a bad skill to have.”
Tickets for The Big One are available via the Newcastle United box office.