Gonzalo Tiesi makes his first senior appearance in more than a year as Newcastle Falcons prepare for Sunday’s Aviva Premiership visit of London Irish to Kingston Park Stadium (3pm).
The Argentinean centre has missed the entire campaign through injury but returns in time for a game which is expected to see a season-high crowd, Newcastle making four changes from the side which faced Harlequins last time out.
Tiesi and countryman Juan Pablo Socino form a new-look midfield partnership, Tiesi making his playing comeback three weeks ago with a full 80 minutes in the Falcons’ bonus-point victory at Gloucester as they secured an Aviva A-League semi-final place.
Simon Hammersley returns at full-back as Alex Tait moves up to the wing, Sinoti Sinoti making way after missing the match through injury.
In the pack there is just one personnel change as Sean Robinson’s return to the second row sees Mark Wilson move to the blind-side flank, director of rugby Dean Richards well aware of the stakes as his side aim to take a massive step closer to securing their top-flight status.
Richards said: "In some respects you would want it to be like any other week, but everybody is billing it to be slightly different. Having said that, we are four points clear of them with two games left after this weekend, so the pressure really is on London Irish."
Aiming for keep cool heads and a positive mind-set, he added: "In desperate times people do desperate things, and there is no doubt about the fact that when London Irish come up here they will be throwing the kitchen sink and everything else at it. From our point of view it is understanding what they bring to the table, going out there and delivering a win. To do that we need to deliver a performance which is controlled, and yet at the same time shows the ambition to go out there and win."
Making no attempt to shirk the importance of the fixture and the responsibility which rests on his own shoulders, Richards said: "It comes with the job, the territory, and you just have to accept that. It is of course important to keep Aviva Premiership rugby in the North East, and we and the players understand that importance. Everybody wants to be up there, and players look forward to these kinds of big games.
"There is a real excitement in the camp about this fixture, there really is. And not in a way whereby it is over the top. It is knowing that it is a big game, and knowing that the nerves and excitement go hand in hand with that in the lead-up to big games. It is nice to see."
Strong early ticket sales suggest Sunday’s match will top the Falcons’ previous highest home crowd of the season, with 7,218 supporters having been in attendance for the 26-25 victory over Northampton Saints on February 21.
Tickets are available by calling 0871 226 6060, via www.newcastle-falcons.co.uk or from the stadium in person.
Newcastle Falcons team to play London Irish (Sunday, 3pm, Kingston Park)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Alex Tait
13 Gonzalo Tiesi
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Marcus Watson
10 Mike Delany
9 Michael Young
1 Rob Vickers
2 George McGuigan
3 Taione Vea
4 Calum Green
5 Sean Robinson
6 Mark Wilson
7 Will Welch (captain)
8 Nili Latu
16 Scott Lawson
17 Alex Rogers
18 Mike Cusack
19 Mouritz Botha
20 Ally Hogg
21 Sonatane Takulua
22 Craig Willis
23 Chris Harris