Newcastle Falcons head coach John Wells is determined to end 2015-16 on a winning note when Sale Sharks visit Kingston Park Stadium on Saturday.
The Falcons make seven changes to the side which took the field at Saracens last weekend, top try-scorer Nili Latu returning to captain the team as Will Welch misses out through injury.
Juan Pablo Socino replaces Adam Powell at inside centre, Rob Hawkins earning a start at hooker in his final professional game before retiring to pursue a career with the Police. Mike Cusack joins him in the front-row in his last outing for the club following his loan move from Glasgow, Mike Delany coming in at fly-half for Craig Willis. The only other changes come in the second-row where Calum Green comes in for Mouritz Botha and Will Witty replaces Sean Robinson, who this week underwent a shoulder operation.
With Newcastle's Aviva Premiership status having been cemented last weekend, Wells said: “This season has been tough and challenging. Last week was a watershed in terms of clearing things up, and in some respects that has taken the pressure off this game. However, that is not to say we aren’t absolutely committed to going out there on Saturday and beating Sale Sharks on our own patch.
"We want to end this one on a high by beating Sale and they are a brilliant example for us to look at. They are not full of world stars but they work incredibly hard for each other, they are challenging for Champions Cup qualification and they have something to play for. We have pride, and just the simple fact of wanting to put in a good home performance in front of our own fans."
Asked if supporters can expect to see an end-of-season free-for-all, Wells said: "There are two ways of answering that question. There is the obvious relief of knowing where we are going to be playing our rugby next season, so in that sense there is not the pressure of it being a must-win game. But the danger is that the game gets fast, loose and messy, and I don’t think either side will want that.
"If Sale are chasing the points they will want to keep some structure, and for us to stand the best chance of winning we need to keep a certain amount of structure to what we do. If the ball starts to flash and fly around all over the place it will end up on the floor being hacked downfield, and you just don’t know who is going to end up being on the end of things like that. The best thing is that if both sides are serious about getting the win, there should be some structure and organisation to the performances.
"Sale’s director of rugby Steve Diamond is pretty hard-nosed and I’d be very surprised if they weren’t coming here to win the game. As things stand they are still in with a chance of Champions Cup qualification, they have a big opportunity but we’ll have to see how they play."
On the season as a whole, the head coach added: "It was tough having so many injuries early on and so many guys coming back from the World Cup. The reality is that there tends to be a drop-off after a World Cup when you have been away with an international team for most of the previous five months. It is hard, and people need to understand that, but we dug ourselves out of that phase by beating some good sides. We then got ourselves into a position we didn’t want to be by losing to some of the teams around us, but by hook or by crook we have got ourselves out of it and we now know where we are for next season.
"I think everybody is looking forward to a break. It has been long, intense and the structure of this season has tested the strength and morale of squads up and down the league. It has been one of those grind-it-out seasons – a big learning curve, even for guys who have been coaching for 20 years in this division.
"Looking further ahead we have had a sit-down and a look at this season to see what has worked, what hasn’t and how we can make those things better next year. After this game we can then start looking forward to our new arrivals joining us and making things work from there."
Tickets for Saturday’s game are available by calling 0871 226 6060, from the stadium on the day or via www.newcastle-falcons.co.uk. Anyone buying an adult or concession ticket is entitled to two free under-11s tickets.
Newcastle Falcons team to face Sale Sharks (Saturday, 3.30pm, Kingston Park Stadium)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Alex Tait
13 Chris Harris
12 Juan Pablo Socino
11 Marcus Watson
10 Mike Delany
9 Michael Young
1 Rob Vickers
2 Rob Hawkins
3 Mike Cusack
4 Calum Green
5 Will Witty
6 Mark Wilson
7 Dan Temm
8 Nili Latu (captain)
16 Scott Lawson
17 Alex Rogers
18 Taione Vea
19 Kane Thompson
20 Richard Mayhew
21 Sonatane Takulua
22 Craig Willis
23 Belisario Agulla