Vereniki Goneva makes his first Aviva Premiership start for Newcastle Falcons when they kick off the new season at home to Sale Sharks on Friday night (kick-off 8pm).
The Fijian international was shortlisted for European Player of the Year last season, dotting down 44 tries in 92 appearances during his four seasons at Leicester Tigers. He forms part of an unchanged side from the one which won 26-21 at Edinburgh last Friday, Newcastle completing an unbeaten pre-season after victories over Nottingham (50-12), Doncaster Knights (34-12) and Gala RFC (57-12).
Jon Welsh makes his first Aviva Premiership appearance since January’s home win over Bath, the Scotland prop back to full fitness after toe surgery. He partners countryman Scott Lawson and Tongan international Taione Vea in an experienced front row – Canadian forward Evan Olmstead making his top-flight debut after scoring in all three of his pre-season outings.
Sinoti Sinoti starts on the left wing after overcoming a knee injury over the summer, former All Black Mike Delany partnering Tongan international Sonatane Takulua in the half-backs. Takulua’s Countryman Opeti Fonua is among Newcastle’s replacements after making a big impact on his debut at Murrayfield a week ago, ex-Jersey prop Sam Lockwood in line for a debut from the bench after being named in the RFU Championship Team of the Season for the past two years.
Fly-half Joel Hodgson could make a second ‘debut’ for the Falcons having rejoined his home town club – Ben Sowrey, Sam Egerton and Dominic Waldouck among the other summer arrivals in contention to come on.
Adam Powell misses out after tearing his anterior cruciate knee ligament in the pre-season opener against Nottingham, an injury which is expected to rule him out of action for around the next six months. Tonga captain Nili Latu is also a long-term absentee after undergoing knee surgery.
Director of rugby Dean Richards said: “We have not had as many new signings as this time last year, and a couple of those who have come in have only done so in response to long-term injuries. Overall we have a much greater degree of stability within the squad, we have retained our core and everyone is working well together.
“Everybody here is in a good place and we haven’t lost a game yet. Confidence is high, we have a much better squad than last year and everyone is vying for selection. There is competition all over the place and we are chomping at the bit to get into the games.”
Having won four from four in pre-season, Richards added: “It is nice to get some victories under our belt. The boys are turning it in and playing very well at the moment. Our last pre-season game produced a decent win up at Murrayfield, but the beauty of this group is that they didn’t over-celebrate – they acknowledged the areas which needed further improvement and have gone about that task during the week.
“Our pack are giving us good go-forward, we have a reasonably solid platform and when we get over that gain line we have the quality in attack to hurt teams.”
On the challenge posed by the Sharks, the Falcons boss said: “Sale beat us up here in the final game of last season, which really disappointed us.
“We have a bit of a point to prove because we felt we could and should have won that game. We knocked on twice going over the try-line, Sale took their chances and we fluffed a few of our own. We have learned from that day and feel like we are well set for the season. Everyone here is really excited about what is ahead for this team.
“You can say Sale have lost people like Tommy Taylor, Danny Cipriani and Tom Brady, but they have brought in good players like Rob Webber and AJ MacGinty. We know they are a strong side, they will come to play rugby and to take us on physically. We have a lot of respect for what they can offer but at the same time the belief in our own ability to challenge them.”
Tickets for Friday’s game are available from £15 adults, £12 concessions and £5 under-16s by calling 0871 226 6060.
Newcastle Falcons team to face Sale Sharks (Friday, 8pm, Kingston Park Stadium)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Vereniki Goneva
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Sinoti Sinoti
10 Mike Delany
9 Sonatane Takulua
1 Jon Welsh
2 Scott Lawson
3 Taione Vea
4 Calum Green
5 Will Witty
6 Evan Olmstead
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Mark Wilson
16 Ben Sowrey
17 Alex Rogers
18 Sam Lockwood
19 Opeti Fonua
20 Callum Chick
21 Sam Egerton
22 Joel Hodgson
23 Dominic Waldouck