Prop Logovi’i Mulipola makes his 50th appearance for Newcastle Falcons on Sunday when they kick-off their Premiership season at home to champions, Harlequins.
The Samoan international prop packs down at loose-head side in a side which sees a first team debut for former Leeds Rhinos rugby league wing Iwan Stephens – son of ex-Wales rugby union international Colin Stephens.
A rib injury picked up in last weekend’s win at Edinburgh means summer signing Mike Brown misses out on the chance to face his former club, while Mark Wilson and Luther Burrell are both absent due to knee injuries.
Adam Radwan starts on the right wing after scoring a hat-trick on his England debut in July, with Trevor Davison, another England debutant in the summer, starting at tight-head prop.
Will Welch captains the side from the open-side flank as the Falcons aim to repeat the 25-22 victory they enjoyed over Harlequins on their last visit to the North East.
Scrum-half Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti could make his Gallagher Premiership debut from the bench after spending the majority of last season on loan at Jersey, while George Wacokecoke is also among the replacements having scored in Newcastle Falcons’ pre-season victories away to Glasgow and Edinburgh.
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Director of rugby Dean Richards said: “Playing the champions on the opening weekend gives you a measure of where you are, and everybody’s up for it.
“We know we’re playing against a side which is very unpredictable, we’ll fight right through til the end and we’re not in a bad place going into it.”
Having won all three of their warm-up games away to Glasgow (7-12), at home to Doncaster (33-29) and away to Edinburgh (10-26), the Falcons boss joked: “I hate winning pre-season friendlies.
“Historically, I’ve always worried if the boys win all their games – but to be fair to the squad they seem in good shape, mentally.
“Even on the field we’re putting it together, and this weekend it’s a case of turning up with a real focus and making it happen. We know it will be a hard game against a good side, but it’s a game that we can win.
“We’ve had a better pre-season this year because we’ve gone from one season into another, rather than having an eight-month gap between games. That’s allowed us to be sharper and more balanced, and across the three games I’ve been happy with a lot of what we’ve done.
“We’ve had questions asked of us, we’ve been found wanting at times in certain areas but we’ve found a way to come out the other side of it. We’ve been challenged by our opposition, we’ve worked hard to find the answers and I think the boys are in good nick.”
A variety of law changes for the new season include the new 50:22 kick and goal-line drop-outs, with Richards asked during his midweek press conference if this placed more of an emphasis on ‘attacking rugby.’
He said: “If you look at the international game you’d say it’s predominantly defence-oriented in terms of how far up the field teams will choose to play, but I think in the club game there’s scope for a maverick team like Harlequins last season to come in and win the league with much more of a running style of game.
“I think the new laws to a small extent might bring about some more attacking play, but we’ve got to be a bit careful in assuming that’s what everyone wants to see.
“I could name six or seven clubs off the top of my head whereby the home crowd would be just as happy watching a good 7-7 or 10-3 as long as the intensity and accuracy is there, and they’re not there for the basketball approach.
“We’ve got to be careful that we don’t go down the Super Rugby route, where coincidentally they’re losing fans. I think for lots of supporters in this part of the world rugby is a gladiatorial game, and we want to make sure they get that intensity inside the stadiums rather than just catering for people sat at home.
“A procession of 53-45 basketball games might look good on TV, but it becomes a bit monotonous for your rank-and-file supporter who pays at the turnstile. I love a good 12-10 as much as anything if it’s a quality game with that high level of intensity and top-class defence, and I think if you ask your regular rugby fan a lot of them would say the same.
“We’ve drifted away from that a little bit as a sport, and we may end up losing the spectators who like that gladiatorial type of contest if we don’t keep an eye on it.”
Newcastle Falcons team v Harlequins (Sunday, 3pm, Kingston Park Stadium, live on BT Sport 1)
15 Tom Penny, 14 Adam Radwan, 13 Ben Stevenson, 12 Pete Lucock, 11 Iwan Stephens, 10 Brett Connon, 9 Louis Schreuder; 1 Logovi’i Mulipola, 2 George McGuigan, 3 Trevor Davison, 4 Greg Peterson, 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Philip van der Walt, 7 Will Welch (captain), 8 Carl Fearns.
Replacements: 16 Jamie Blamire, 17 Kyle Cooper, 18 Mark Tampin, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Connor Collett, 21 Cameron Nordli-Kelemeti, 22 Will Haydon-Wood, 23 George Wacokecoke.