Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards has made three changes to his side for their Premiership clash with Bath on Friday.
Fit-again flanker Will Welch returns to captain the side after making his comeback from the bench last week against Wasps following a fractured cheekbone.
He replaces Ally Hogg in a reshuffled back row, the Scot having picked up an injury in last Friday’s 34-30 home loss to the league leaders.
Canadian international Evan Olmstead returns from injury to take up a spot in the second row, while the hamstring injury suffered by Marcus Watson means Belisario Agulla shifts to the wing in a move which sees Dominic Waldouck come in at outside centre.
On the bench there could be a first appearance of the season for Sean Robinson after returning to fitness, director of rugby Richards keen for his side to begin the new year on a positive note after an encouraging return in 2016.
Richards said: "The boys are enjoying their rugby and playing a good brand. We didn’t quite get the tries we wanted down at Saracens on Christmas Eve but we scored four last weekend against a good Wasps side, and we’re going out there to give it a real go.
"It’s a very happy camp at the moment. To be fair, it always has been, but during the past two or three years the boys have been looking down or over their shoulders at what has been happening at the bottom of the table. I’ve personally never had that fear that we would finish bottom, but it’s how far up the ladder we finish.
"To finish 11th was disappointing from my perspective, so this year we are starting to make headway up the league. We’ll see where we end up, and there has never been a worry there from me. The boys are very much enjoying their rugby and it is starting to come together. They go out there to score tries, which they are starting to do now. In the first five or six league games this season we struggled a little bit to get into the groove, but we are there now."
Expecting a good test against a Bath side who were beaten at Kingston Park this time last year, Richards admitted his team are keen to make amends for the heavy defeat they suffered at the Rec earlier this season.
"You look at the Bath away game and we were harshly done by a yellow card to Niki Goneva, which I thought was a really poor decision on the day," said the director of rugby.
"As a consequence we leaked three or four tries at the end of the first half, and that it killed the game in the sense we were so far behind we were chasing it and leaving ourselves open. We leaked a few more in trying to find a try-scoring bonus point, and we were really disappointed by that game. Yeah, we have got a point to prove, but it is all about ourselves and our ability to produce the game we want to produce.
"That game is behind us now, and it’s not about retribution. It wasn’t Bath who sent Niki Goneva to the sin-bin, it was someone else, and we have just got to go about our game in making sure we are on top of it. If we are we will come away with the result.
"Bath are an incredibly dangerous team and you can’t take your foot off the gas against them. They found it difficult last week against Exeter going down to 14 men, and as much as they will be upset by that defeat they will understand there is a reason and a rationale behind it. They will obviously want to come up here and turn it round, but we also have a point to prove after not getting the result we wanted against Wasps last week."
Meanwhile, Anthony Watson will make his first start for Bath Rugby since October for Bath this weekend.
The England international marked his return from injury off the bench against Exeter Chiefs on New Year’s Eve and will start at full-back. The wings will once again be occupied by Aled Brew and Semesa Rokoduguni, the club’s leading try scorer this season.
Jonathan Joseph and Ben Tapuai will continue their exciting partnership in the midfield, with George Ford and Darren Allinson forming a new partnership to orchestrate proceedings at fly-half and scrum-half respectively.
In an unchanged front row for Bath’s first game of 2017, Tom Dunn will be supported either side by Max Lahiff and Nathan Catt, whose form was recently rewarded with a place in England’s 45-man squad for the Six Nations.
The towering presence of Elliott Stooke and Luke Charteris make up a physical second row, while Tom Ellis and Francois Louw continue at blindside and openside flanker. Zach Mercer completes the starting line-up at number eight, with the 19-year-old facing the side that he made his Premiership debut against back in September.
Hooker Jack Walker and centre Robbie Fruean could make their first team bow against the Falcons off the bench, and Chris Cook makes his return to the squad after injury.
Form: Newcastle Falcons have lost their last two matches of 2016, at Saracens on Christmas Eve and at home to Wasps six days later. The Falcons have scored 23 tries in the twelve rounds of Premiership Rugby this season and 10 of those have come in the last two home games. Bath Rugby’s only victory in the last four rounds of Premiership Rugby was 14-11 at home to Saracens on 3rd December. Bath have not won away from home in any competition since their trip to Exeter in Premiership Rugby on 30th October. Newcastle’s solitary victory in their last dozen meetings with Bath in Premiership Rugby was 19-14 at Kingston Park in this equivalent fixture last season played on 2nd January.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Belisario Agulla, 13 Dominic Waldouck, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Opeti Fonua, 7 Will Welch (c), 6 Mark Wilson, 5 Evan Olmstead, 4 Calum Green, 3 Jon Welsh, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Rob Vickers
Replacements: 16 Ben Sowrey, 17 Ben Harris, 18 Paddy Ryan, 19 Will Witty, 20 Sean Robinson, 21 Michael Young, 22 Craig Willis, 23 Fred Burdon
Bath: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ben Tapuai, 11 Aled Brew, 10 George Ford (c), 9 Darren Allinson, 8 Zach Mercer, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Tom Ellis, 5 Luke Charteris, 4 Elliott Stooke, 3 Max Lahiff, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Nathan Catt
Replacements: 16 Jack Walker, 17 Beno Obano, 18 Shaun Knight, 19 Matt Garvey, 20 Paul Grant, 21 Chris Cook, 22 Rhys Priestland, 23 Robbie Fruean
Date: Friday, January 6
Venue: Kingston Park
Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Referee: Greg Garner
Assistant Referees: John Meredith, Wayne Falla
TMO: Keith Lewis