The second half of the Aviva Premiership campaign kicks off at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday as leaders Northampton Saints host Newcastle Falcons.
There is just one change to the Northampton starting line-up from that which began last Saturday’s win at Twickenham, with Phil Dowson swapping places with Tom Wood in the back row. Dowson also captains the team.
Meanwhile, hooker Matti Williams and scrum-half Joel Hodgson come onto the bench.
Versatile back Tom Stephenson insists that no one in the Saints camp is taking anything for granted this week in the run-up to Friday’s clash.
The Falcons have been one of the must-watch teams in the Aviva Premiership in recent weeks, winning plenty of praise and plaudits for their entertaining and threatening brand of rugby.
“The days of seeing Newcastle as an ‘easy’ game are gone,” he told the Northampton Saints website
“They’re a team that are on the up. They gave Saracens a good run for their money last weekend and we know that they’ve got big ball carriers on the wing and in the centre and will be a big challenge for us.
“They’ve got a good coaching team and recruited well over the summer. Going up to Newcastle is always hard, but they’ve improved on the road as well this season and are playing some good rugby.”
The Saints may have extended their winning run to six matches in all competitions with the 30-25 win over Harlequins last weekend, but players and coaches alike said both after the game and in midweek that no one was satisfied with how the team played.
And the Junior World Champion says that this has been good to use to focus the mind ahead of the return to Franklin’s Gardens in the opening match of 2015, adding: “We weren’t happy with our performance at Twickenham.
“We’ve got to bounce back from that, that’s our main goal this week, and there won’t be any complacency. We’ve looked at what we didn’t do well, have worked hard, and are looking forward to putting those wrongs right this week.”
Meanwhile, Newcastle Falcons have made six changes from the side which pushed a strong Saracens side to the wire during an exciting game at Kingston Park over the festive period.
Double try scorer Chris Harris is rewarded for a strong performance from the bench by being handed his first start in the Aviva Premiership when he lines up on the wing. Samoan heavy weight Andy Tuilagi in also in line for his first Falcons start following his summer move to the North East.
Following some strong performances this season in the Falcons’ semi-final qualifying A-League side, Danny Barnes is recalled on the wing while Richard Mayhew makes a welcome return to the side following an injury layoff which has kept him from first team action since early November.
Elsewhere in the side Italian international Josh Furno partners an ever present Calum Green who has started every Premiership match this term. Kane Thompson misses out through suspension while USA international Eric Fry moves up from the bench to start at Loosehead in place of Rob Vickers.
Fellow internationals Scott Lawson and Kieran Brookes join Fry in the front row while club captain Will Welch lines up alongside Mayhew and Mark Wilson in the back row.
In the backline Alex Tait continues to hold the full-back shirt while Adam Powell, Tom Catterick and Mike Blair all retain their places from last weekend’s starting side.
Form: Northampton Saints have won their last six matches in all tournaments since tripping up at home to Exeter Chiefs in round 7 of Aviva Premiership Rugby, this represents their only defeat at Franklin’s Gardens since Leicester were the visitors in March. Newcastle Falcons have lost their last three fixtures in Aviva Premiership Rugby since they beat Gloucester at Kingston Park in round 8. The Falcons’ solitary away victory in the tournament since October 2013 came at struggling London Welsh last October. Northampton have won their last ten contests with Falcons in all competitions since Newcastle were victorious 19-13 at Franklin’s Gardens in Premiership Rugby on 28th February 2009.
Northampton Saints: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Phil Dowson (capt), 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Sam Dickinson, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Matti Williams, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Ben Nutley, 20 Tom Wood, 21 Joel Hodgson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson.
Newcastle Falcons : 15 Alex Tait, 14 Chris Harris, 13 Adam Powell , 12 Anitelea Tuilagi, 11 Danny Barnes, 10 Tom Catterick, 9 Mike Blair, 8 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (c), 6 Richard Mayhew, 5 Josh Furno, 4 Calum Green, 3 Kieran Brookes, 2 Scott Lawson, 1 Eric Fry
Replacements: 16 George McGuigan, 17 Rob Vickers, 18 Alex Rogers, 19 Scott MacLeod, 20 Andy Saull, 21 Ruki Tipuna, 22 Rory Clegg, 23 Tom Penny
Date: Friday, 2 January
Venue: Franklin’s Gardens
Kick-off: 19.45 GMT
Referee: Ian Tempest
Assistant referees: Gareth Copsey ; John Meredith