French centre Maxime Mermoz makes his competitive debut for Newcastle Falcons on Saturday as they welcome Welsh side Dragons to Kingston Park Stadium (kick-off 3pm).
The two-time European Champions Cup winner and triple French league champion starts in a potent line-up which also sees first starts for fellow summer arrivals Toby Flood, Ryan Burrows, Gary Graham and Sam Stuart.
The starting XV shows 11 changes from the one which took a four-try bonus point at Aviva Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs last weekend, the Falcons embarking on a six-game round-robin pool phase which sees home-and-away games against Dragons, French side Bordeaux-Begles and Russian outfit Enisei-STM.
The five pool winners and three best runners-up will progress through to the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, Newcastle looking to extend their Kingston Park unbeaten streak to more than seven months after an encouraging start to the season.
Teenage flyer Adam Radwan is handed his first competitive start of the campaign after shining in pre-season, scoring in every game of the Falcons’ run to the Singha 7s finals and grounding three tries in his three friendly outings.
Simon Hammersley returns at full-back from the ankle injury sustained in the Falcons’ 33-32 victory at Bath four weeks ago, while England Saxons prop Scott Wilson is set for a first appearance of the season from the bench after recovering from injury.
Defence coach John Wells is keen for his side to build on a promising start to the Aviva Premiership season which sees them placed fourth in the table after six rounds, their only defeats coming against the top two teams in the division, Saracens and Exeter.
“Overall it has been a pleasing start, but we know it could have been even better,” said Wells, who is pleased with the depth of the Falcons’ squad but aware of the strides which need to be made.
“I don’t suppose the top six English teams who are in the Champions Cup this weekend are talking about resting players – they’re going full bore and rolling out the big boys who’ve been playing the first six weeks of the Premiership when they’re facing the likes of Clermont, Munster and teams of that ilk.
“There’ll be nobody in that kind of company talking about taking it easy, but for where we are at the moment we’ve probably got the ability to give some guys a bit of a breather and allow some of the players who are knocking on the door a chance to come in and show us what they can do. That said, I’d like to think that any team we put out will be competitive, and we’re going out there to win the game.
“We’re without Juan Pablo Socino in the back-line due to his two-week ban, which was very disappointing. We have a few guys out and have been forced to adjust as a result, but the side we’ve put out has plenty of ability.”
Newcastle enjoyed the right end of the result the last time they came up against the Dragons, when a rain-affected Anglo-Welsh Cup tie was brought to a halt at 18-6 up after 62 muddy minutes at Rodney Parade last January.
Wells joked: “It was a fantastic game of rugby!
“As a former Leicester man I thoroughly enjoyed that game, and ironically it was probably one of our better performances. We kept things tight in defence and took our opportunities when they came, which wasn’t very often with the weather and the pitch the way they were. It was knee-deep in water and mud but we coped incredibly well.
“Fortunately it won’t be that bad on Saturday and both teams want to run the ball, which should hopefully lead to an enjoyable game for the crowd.”
Aware of the need to balance style with substance, he added: “We want to entertain but we also want to win games, so it’s a balancing act.
“I’m pretty sure that during the course of the season we are going to score a load of tries and put some good teams away with the quality of our attacking play, and conversely there are going to be wet, horrible days where we’re going to have to play ugly to win.
“Yes, we want to be liked as a side that people enjoy watching, but we need to be pragmatic as well. I think we’re achieving that balance fairly well at the moment, as we showed by winning in the rain at Sale then beating Bath on a sunny day at the Rec, so we just have to deal with the conditions and the games as they come. If we do what we do well for long enough periods of time during our games then I think we’ll be alright.”
Tickets for Saturday’s 3pm kick-off are available by calling 0871 226 6060, clicking here or from Kingston Park Stadium in person.
Newcastle Falcons team to face Dragons (Saturday, 3pm, Kingston Park Stadium)
15 Simon Hammersley
14 Alex Tait
13 Maxime Mermoz
12 Toby Flood
11 Adam Radwan
10 Joel Hodgson
9 Sam Stuart
1 Rob Vickers
2 Ben Sowrey
3 Trevor Davison
4 Will Witty
5 Sean Robinson
6 Mark Wilson (captain)
7 Gary Graham
8 Ryan Burrows
16 Jamie Blamire
17 Adam Brocklebank
18 Scott Wilson
19 Glen Young
20 Will Welch
21 Ruaridh Dawson
22 Cameron Cowell
23 Chris Harris
15 Will Talbot-Davies
14 Ashton Hewitt
13 Jared Rosser
12 Adam Warren
11 George Gasson
10 Angus O’Brien
9 Sarel Pretorius
1 Luke Garrett
2 Liam Belcher
3 Lloyd Fairbrother
4 Joe Davies
5 Matthew Screech
6 Aaron Wainwright
7 Ollie Griffiths (captain)
8 James Benjamin
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)