Tom Vickers’ Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints preview

Newcastle Falcons coach Dean Richards

Newcastle Falcons coach Dean Richards

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Fixture: Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints (Aviva Premiership - round 13)

Date/kick-off time: Sunday, February 21, 3pm

Weather forecast: 7C, cloudy

Referee: Wayne Barnes

Newcastle Falcons: Hammersley; Tait, Harris, Powell, Watson; Goode, Young; Vickers, Lawson, Vea; Botha, Robinson; Wilson, Welch (c), Hogg. Replacements: McGuigan, Rogers, Hatakeyama, Furno, Latu, Tane, Willis, Socino.

Saints: Foden; Elliott, Burrell, Mallinder, Wilson; Myler, Dickson (c); A Waller, Haywood, Brookes; Craig, Day; Gibson, Wood, Dickinson. Replacements: Marshall, E Waller, Denman, Matfield, Harrison, Kessell, Hahrahan, G Pisi.

Outs: Saints: Clark (shoulder), Fotuali’i (hamstring), K Pisi (shoulder), Hartley, Hill, Lawes, North (international duty).

Most recent meeting: Saturday, October 24: Saints 42 Newcastle Falcons 16 (Aviva Premiership)

Tom’s preview: While perusing the Aviva Premiership fixtures when they were released, Saints fans would have been forgiven for predicting a productive February.

A clash with Harlequins appeared to be the toughest assignment, though Conor O’Shea’s men were always likely to be hampered by a plethora of Six Nations call-ups.

Home games against London Irish and newly-promoted Worcester Warriors looked like ‘gimmes’, while the trip to Newcastle Falcons also seemed set to bear fruit.

However, while the Quins and Irish encounters have been successfully navigated - the one at The Stoop was a bit tighter than last weekend’s 35-7 thumping of the men for the Madejski Stadium - this weekend’s trip to Newcastle appears to be the acid test.

Saints would usually be sizeable favourites to slay the Falcons, who have not beaten Jim Mallinder’s men since returning to the top division in 2013.

Five league clashes between the sides have come and gone since then, with Northampton always finding a way past the Falcons.

But you feel this weekend’s game against Dean Richards’ side will be the most difficult of the lot.

There is nothing like a Leicester Tigers defeat to capture the attention of the Franklin’s Gardens faithful, and last weekend’s Falcons win against the Tigers did not go unnoticed.

Saints fans discussed it before the thumping win over Irish and the Northampton players and coaches were quick to mention it in post-match interviews.

They know exactly what kind of challenge awaits them this weekend.

Newcastle have been playing for their Premiership lives, but they now have more than just pure fight.

They have the skilled and experienced Andy Goode pulling the strings, with players such as centre Adam Powell and full-back Simon Hammersley adding cut to the thrust.

Up front, they are capable of going toe to toe with the league’s better packs and the win against Leicester was a display of aggression and nerve.

So Saints have it all to do to claim a third successive league win for the first time in this campaign.

But they too go into the game on a high.

They have finally rediscovered the swagger that saw them top the Premiership standings for the first time in the club’s history last season.

And that running rugby is enough to cause anyone problems, even a Falcons side who have won their past five home games.

If the pack can put Saints on the front foot and the likes of Lee Dickson, Harry Mallinder and Luther Burrell can continue their fine form, Jim Mallinder’s men can get the job done.

And if they do, they can continue to live up to those pre-season predictions that February would be a month in which the top-four bid really ignited.

Tom’s prediction: Newcastle 18 Saints 25