England U20 captain Alex Gray has been given his first Aviva Premiership start on the eve of Newcastle's crucial visit to Bath.
Newcastle have handed England U20 captain Alex Gray his first Aviva Premiership start on the eve of their crucial trip to Bath on Saturday.
The 20-year-old skippered his country to Grand Slam glory in the age-group Six Nations, remarkably scoring in every single game.
Gray is one of four changes from last week's 14-11 defeat against Bath at Kingston Park, as the Falcons go in search of the win that would secure their top-flight status.
Cumbrian talent Mark Wilson partners Gray on the flanks, while Jeremy Manning and James Fitzpatrick return to a reshaped backline.
James Fitzpatrick comes in for Rob Vickerman and starts at inside centre, with Kiwi Jeremy Manning getting the nod at full-back, replacing Alex Tait who moves to the wing.
“We have been focussed all week and I think the boys have been excellent,” said Tait.
“We have got ourselves one point clear of Leeds but funny things can happen in sport and they could go down and get a result at Northampton.
“The boys have got to keep their minds on the job and with almost a full squad training this week, I am just hoping that we can now carry that through to Saturday.”
Leeds Carnegie need a minimum of two points barring a mathematical miracle from their game at Heineken Cup finalists Northampton Saints, to stave off relegation to the Championship.
A losing bonus point for Neil Back's side would not be good enough due to the north-easterners' superior point's difference.
“Everybody is saying that we are favourites to stay up but I watched the Bedford v Worcester game at the weekend and funny things can happen in sport,” said Tait.
“It's not over till it's over and we have been saying that for a month now. I always believed that it would go down to the wire and that is now the case.
“This is what TV want to see and to be honest it was nearly irrelevant when Bedford almost beat Worcester last weekend.
“This is what TV are after and people think this is good for the game but that is another debate. We or Leeds are going to fall out of the Premiership on Saturday but we are fully focussed and we will go down there and give our best shot against Bath.”
With qualification for the play-offs still a possibility for Bath, the team will be coming out all guns blazing as they host the Falcons.
Whilst just where Bath will finish in the table this season is still unknown, one thing that can be said with some certainty is that this will be the last game that Bath, England and British and Irish Lions legend, Danny Grewcock, plays at the Rec.
Speaking earlier this week, Grewcock explained how he hadn't really thought about this being his last game, and how privileged he feels to have had such a successful career.
“It was a tight game up there last weekend, and we know it's going to be just as tight tomorrow, but we just have to get out there and do our job. We'll wait and see what happens in the other games – if a bit of luck comes our way, then great, if not, we want to do a good job and end the season well,” he said.
“It is odd thinking this will be my last game at the Rec, but I've not really thought about it too much. I have always enjoyed my training and always enjoyed my games, so have stayed focused on what is ahead of us this Saturday. If it is the last game, then I'll ponder on it come Sunday, when the game is done and I realise there isn't any more training or any more games to play!
“The Rec is a fantastic place to run out, and we have a fantastic crowd, so it will be very different to not have that. Luckily I'm staying involved in the Club, so I won't be too far away from the pitch on a match day!
“We are all incredibly lucky to do this job – to be out there playing a bit of sport, which people pay to come and watch – it's a great honour for all the players to have the role we have in playing sport for a living. It has certainly been a very enjoyable career for me, and I've been lucky with the length of time I have been playing. I haven't been happy with some aspects of my game this season, so hopefully I can get out there and finally get that perfect game!”
Form: Newcastle have won only one of their last 13 matches against Bath in all competitions since 2004: 27-16 at The Rec on 24 October 2009. This was the Falcons only win at Bath since 2004. Bath Rugby must win to give themselves any hope of reaching the Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-finals. Bath have won their last four matches, whilst their only defeat in their last seven games at The Rec in all competitions was 6-37 to Leicester on 26 March. Newcastle Falcons require a bonus point win to guarantee their Premiership survival (less if Leeds drop any points at Northampton). The Falcons have lost seven in a row in all competitions – their poorest run since 1995/96.
Bath: 15 Sam Vesty, 14 Tom Biggs, 13 Matt Carraro, 12 Matt Banahan, 11 Nick Abendanon, 10 Butch James, 9 Michael Claassens (capt), 8 Simon Taylor, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Ben Skirving, 5 Danny Grewcock, 4 Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, 3 Mark Lilley, 2 Lee Mears, 1 David Flatman.
Replacements: 16 Pieter Dixon, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Kane Palma-Newport, 19 Luke Watson, 20 Guy Mercer, 21 Mark McMillan, 22 Ben Williams, 23 Jacques Boussuge.
Newcastle: 15 Jeremy Manning, 14 Luke Fielden, 13 Tane Tuiipulotu, 12 James Fitzpatrick, 11 Alex Tait, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Micky Young, 8 Ally Hogg, 7 Alex Gray, 6 Mark Wilson, 5 Andrew van der Heijden, 4 James Hudson (capt), 3 Euan Murray, 2 Matt Thompson, 1 Jonny Golding.
Replacements: 16 Rob Vickers, 17 Grant Shiells, 18 Kieran Brookes, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Will Welch, 21 Chris Pilgrim, 22 Gcobani Bobo, 23 Luke Eves.
Date: Saturday, May 7
Kick-off: 15:00 BST
Venue: Recreation Ground
Referee: Wayne Barnes