Newcastle Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards has made four changes to his starting XV for Sunday’s clash with Northampton at Kingston Park.
Sinoti Sinoti will make his first Premiership appearance in more than three months, after recovering from a knee injury, when he returns to the left wing.
Nili Latu makes his first Aviva Premiership start of the season after making his league comeback from the bench last weekend, the Tonga captain having suffered an MCL ligament injury and dislocated knee-cap on international duty during the summer.
He replaces countryman Opeti Fonua, while hooker Kyle Cooper makes his first Premiership start following his move from South African Super Rugby side, the Sharks.
The only other change to the Falcons’ side comes at outside centre where Dominic Waldouck replaces Chris Harris, Newcastle out to do the double over the Saints following November’s 22-16 triumph at Franklin’s Gardens.
Richards said: “Northampton are a side who are incredibly difficult to beat, so we’ll have an understanding of how to beat them. The personnel for them will have changed from then to now, but in essence their style doesn’t change that much.
“We have thoughts on how to play them and what their strengths and weaknesses are, but at the same time we’ve still got to go out and do it. Ultimately it comes down to the mind-set, which I think is the big thing at the weekend.”
Vereniki Goneva scored the match-winning interception try the last time the two teams met, and the Fijian was at it again with a hat-trick last weekend, including another pair of interceptions.
“He’s on fire at the moment,” said Richards.
“He has a habit of scoring tries – three last week, one against them earlier in the year. They’ll look at Niki, they’ll look at the rest of the back line and be on guard, but their pack is something to be worried about. They certainly work hard, they’re abrasive and are very direct as well.
“We know what’s coming, it’s just we’ve got to prepare for it and deal with it. They fight for every point they get, they will have been disappointed by the game down there and they will try and reverse that.”
Enjoying home advantage for Sunday’s clashf, Richards believes the Kingston Park factor can work in his side’s favour for different reasons than in previous years.
“First and foremost it has to be our style of play which makes it difficult for teams to come here,” he said.
“You can look at the weather, before that it was the pitch, but actually I want to put those to one side and make it our style of play and our combativeness and an attitude that we’re never willing to lie down. We’re getting there because this season every game has been like that.
“Probably the Exeter game has been the one that has disappointed us most of all, but every other game has been a pretty hard battle for the guys who have come up here. They don’t like coming up here, they make it well known that they don’t and we’re pleased about that. Primarily that’s not about the travel or the weather, but the way that we play.”
Asked if the top six of the Premiership table was a realistic target this season, Richards replied: “I’ve never looked at anything other than that for the last four years, so in that respect nothing has changed at all. It’s just that the results have started to go our way.
“Every year we’ve shown improvements, but for a lot of people they haven’t quite seen the amount of improvement until all of a sudden you start overtaking people, which is what we’ve done this season. When you do start overtaking them in terms of league position and you start getting more wins than people thought you would get, people do look at you as top-six contenders.
“I’ve always felt we should be, and that’s always been the goal, but you’ve still got to go out and do it. We just approach every game in the same way, as a game to be won. It’s not about the dizzy heights or where your aspirations are, it’s actually about nailing that win time and time again.”
Meanwhile, Northampton Saints’ starting 15 shows two changes from that which came within a couple of minutes of a memorable comeback win at Bath last Friday night.
Both come in the pack, where Api Ratuniyarawa and Calum Clark join the second row and back row respectively. Ben Nutley and Juan Pablo Estelles come onto the replacements’ bench.
Form: Newcastle Falcons only victory in the last four rounds of the Premiership was 24-22 against Bath in their most recent home game on 6 January – they have not won back-to-back games at Kingston Park in the tournament for twelve months. Northampton Saints 30-32 reversal at Bath in Round 14 ended a three game winning run in the Premiership. The Saints’ only victory on the road in their last six first team games was by a single point at Gloucester in the Premiership on New Year’s Day. The Falcons have won their last two matches against the Saints in the Premiership to end a seven year barren spell against the East Midlanders – they have not achieved a Premiership double over Northampton since 2008/09.
Newcastle Falcons: 15 Alex Tait, 14 Vereniki Goneva, 13 Dominic Waldouck, 12 Juan Pablo Socino, 11 Sinoti Sinoti, 10 Joel Hodgson, 9 Sonatane Takulua, 8 Nili Latu, 7 Will Welch (c), 6 Mark Wilson, 5 Sean Robinson, 4 Calum Green, 3 Jon Welsh, 2 Kyle Cooper, 1 Rob Vickers
Replacements: 16 Scott Lawson, 17 Ben Harris, 18 Scott Wilson, 19 Opeti Fonua, 20 Evan Olmstead, 21 Sam Egerton, 22 Mike Delany, 23 Chris Harris
Northampton Saints: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 Nafi Tuitavake, 12 Harry Mallinder, 11 Ben Foden (c), 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Nic Groom, 8 Teimana Harrison, 7 Calum Clark, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Christian Day, 4 Api Ratuniyarawa, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Mikey Haywood, 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Charlie Clare, 17 Ethan Waller, 18 Paul Hill, 19 Michael Paterson, 20 Ben Nutley, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 Rory Hutchinson, 23 Juan Pablo Estelles
Date: Sunday, February 19
Venue: Kingston Park
Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Referee: Gregory Garner
Assistant Referees: Adam Leal, Wayne Falla
TMO: Stuart Terheege