Newcastle Falcons will unleash an all-English back line when the Gallagher Premiership new boys get their season underway at Bath Rugby on Saturday - Dean Richards’ men bringing a homegrown flavour to their top-flight return.
Last season’s unbeaten Championship winners have selected a match-day 23 boasting 19 English-qualified players, more than half of whom have come through the club’s academy.
Former England centre Luther Burrell and Italian lock Marco Fuser make their competitive debuts for the Falcons, having both featured during home-and-away pre-season friendlies against Ealing Trailfinders.
Open-side flanker Connor Collett makes his Gallagher Premiership debut, scrum-half Michael Young captaining the Falcons against his former club as he forms a half-back partnership with former Ireland Under-20s fly-half Brett Connon.
Ben Stevenson and Adam Radwan team up on the wings having scored a combined total of 21 tries in 29 games last season, while Tom Penny starts at full-back after impressing there during last Friday’s 21-12 home win over Ealing.
On the bench there could be a first team debut for former England Under-20s flanker Josh Basham, with England Under-20s lock Rob Farrar and ex-Doncaster centre Pete Lucock also in line for their first Premiership appearances, should they be called upon.
Newcastle’s last opening-day trip to Bath came in September 1997, the newly-promoted side winning 20-13 in a season which saw them going on to claim the league title at the first attempt.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s early kick-off, director of rugby Dean Richards said: “Everyone is making Bath the favourites this weekend, which we understand, but there’s a huge motivation for us to go down there and cause the upset.
“Finally getting back into some competitive games after more than 250 days is a welcome change from all the lockdown, the furlough, the testing and everything else that the last eight months has entailed. We can put all of those things to one side now, it gives us a real focus and that’s where you want to be.”
On the threat posed by Saturday’s hosts, Richards said: “Bath are a really good side, they’ve got a lot of strength in depth and will pose a real challenge to us.
“We’re looking forward to it though, and you want to pit your wits against the best. We’re just excited to be out on a rugby field more than anything else.”
Explaining his selection, the director of rugby added: “We’ve got a lot of injuries at the moment, a lot of which are three to four weeks away, and I think much of it boils down to the deconditioning we had between the end of our season in March and the players coming back into regular squad training in August.
“During that interim time the players had to be reliant on training at home or using their own facilities, and it has been quite difficult for them.
“The upshot is we’ve had a lot of injuries, but, as I’ve always said, an injury for one player means an opportunity for another. We’ve got a number of guys who’ll be going out in the Premiership for the first time this weekend, and we’ve got a huge amount of faith in them.”
Asked how quickly his side will need to regain the rhythm with which they finished last season, the Falcons boss said: “Looking at the Premiership’s restart over the summer it took teams three or four games to get back into things, so hopefully having had our two friendlies against Ealing over the past fortnight will stand us in good stead.
“The proof will be in the pudding as to how quickly we are able to get back into our stride, and we’ll know more after Saturday.
“The travel will be different with having two buses instead of one, the hotel will be different with having no communal areas, no gym, no pool for recovery, potentially having to eat your meals in your single bedrooms and all the little things like that, but ultimately it’s all about what happens on that bit of turf.
“All the other stuff going on around it doesn’t really matter unless you allow it to, and I don’t think it will make any difference. We’re just excited about being back out there again.”
Newcastle Falcons team v Bath Rugby (Saturday, 12.30pm, The Rec, live on BT Sport Extra)
15 Tom Penny
14 Adam Radwan
13 Luther Burrell
12 Toby Flood
11 Ben Stevenson
10 Brett Connon
9 Michael Young (captain)
1 Trevor Davison
2 George McGuigan
3 Logovi’i Mulipola
4 Greg Peterson
5 Marco Fuser
6 Sean Robinson
7 Connor Collett
8 Gary Graham
16 Jamie Blamire
17 Adam Brocklebank
18 Mark Tampin
19 Rob Farrar
20 Josh Basham
21 Sam Stuart
22 Joel Hodgson
23 Pete Lucock
Bath Rugby: 15 Tom de Glanville, 14 Ruaridh McConnochie, 13 Cameron Redpath, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Joe Cokanasiga, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Ben Spencer; 1 Lewis Boyce, 2 Jack Walker, 3 Henry Thomas, 4 Josh McNally (captain), 5 Will Spencer, 6 Mike Williams, 7 Miles Reid, 8 Zach Mercer.
Replacements: 16 Ross Batty, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Christian Judge, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Will Chudley, 22 Max Clark, 23 Semesa Rokoduguni.
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys.