American rugby fans will be treated to their second ever Aviva Premiership match on US soil on Saturday when Newcastle Falcons take on Saracens at Talen Energy Stadium in Philadelphia. This is not an exhibition match, this is a full-on fixture that will be shown on the big screen for the Kingson Park faithful who have sacrificed a home match on their season tickets.
Despite being two-time defending European Champions it’s Saracens who enter the match behind on the current season’s standings after suffering defeat to Bath at the Recreation Ground last weekend. Newcastle meanwhile are off to a flying start having won both of their fixtures, but this is undoubtedly their toughest assignment to date and they will enter as underdogs against a side laden with star power.
Falcons have several Americas players on their roster but only two will take part in the match, and both on the bench. The Socino brothers – Santiago and Juan Pablo – are both selected in a strong but slightly under-strength lineup. Head coach Dean Richards has shown no consideration for sentiment with US Eagles lock Nick Civetta and Canadian duo Jake Ilnicki and Evan Olmstead all left out, while another Argentine Belisario Agulla is also absent after starting in the win over Sale.
Bigger names missing include former England flyhalf Toby Flood, who continues to struggle with a hamstring injury, and French international Maxime Mermoz, who has only just arrived back in the UK in the past week and is not quite up to match sharpness. South African hooker Kyle Cooper misses out with injury as does Canadian star DTH van der Merwe, still recovering from knee damage sustained while playing for Canada against the USA in June.
There are still seven who boast test caps in the run-on side, however, and another three on the bench. Scottish internationals Scott Lawson and Jon Welsh boost the front row while there real strength found in the back row. Mark Wilson made his England debut on the Argentine tour on the summer and he lines up on the blindside with captain Will Welch at openside and former Tonga skipper Nili Latu at No 8. Former Scotland loose forward Ally Hogg is recalled to the bench to provide punch along with England u20 representative Will Witty.
In the backs are two World Cup Fijians in Josh Matavesi and the ever-dangerous Vereniki Goneva. Tongan scrumhalf Tane Takulua is arguably the form halfback in the Premiership with partner Joel Hodgson an underrated player with attacking flair. Alongside Socino on the bench is Samoan winger Sinoti Sinoti, whose lethal sidestep belies his stocky 100kg (220lbs) frame.
The biggest names, however, are clearly found on the other side of the pitch. Saracens have named their strongest side of the season with five members of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour and only two players in the run-on side without international caps. Billy Vunipola makes his first appearance of the season to join brother Mako in a forward pack of frightening power. Burgeoning superstar Maro Itoje partners another bright England talent in Nick Isiekwe at lock and former IRB (World Rugby) Player of the Year Schalk Burger is at openside flank.
Argentine prop Juan Figallo starts at tighthead with countryman Marcelo Bosch running out in the midfield alongside captain Brad Barritt. Former Eagles skipper Chris Wyles gets the nod on the left wing with Wales and Lions star Liam Williams on the right. At flyhalf it’s one of the world’s best players in Owen Farrell who makes his first start of the season. There is more talent on the bench in powerhouse French hooker Christopher Tolofua and a 2013 Lions tourist Sean Maitland.
With the weather set to cooperate and a crowd of more than 10,000 expected it promises to be a thoroughly entertaining day of rugby festivities both on and off the pitch. Look for Saracens to control the tempo early and let loose in the second half if they can secure the result early enough. Newcastle will want to move the ball but may find it difficult against the stifling Saracens defense.
Kickoff is set for 5pm local (Eastern) time with a live broadcast available on NBC Sports.
1 Rob Vickers, 2 Scott Lawson, 3 Jon Welsh, 4 Calum Green, 5 Sean Robinson, 6 Mark Wilson, 7 Will Welch (capt.), 8 Nili Latu, 9 Tane Takulua, 10 Joel Hodgson, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 12 Josh Matavesi, 13 Chris Harris, 14 Alex Tait, 15 Simon Hammersley
Replacements: 16 Santiago Socino, 17 Sami Mavinga, 18 Trevor Davison, 19 Will Witty, 20 Allister Hogg, 21 Sam Stuart, 22 Juan Pablo Socino, 23 Sinoti Sinoti
1 Mako Vunipola, 2 Jamie George, 3 Juan Figallo, 4 Nick Isiekwe, 5 Maro Itoje, 6 Michael Rhodes, 7 Schalk Burger, 8 Billy Vunipola, 9 Ben Spencer, 10 Owen Farrell, 11 Chris Wyles, 12 Brad Barritt (capt.), 13 Marcelo Bosch, 14 Liam Williams, 15 Alex Goode
Replacements: 16 Christopher Tolofua, 17 Hayden Thompson-Stringer, 18 Kieran Longbottom, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 Sean Maitland
Date: Saturday, September 16
Venue: Talen Energy Stadium, Philadelphia
Kickoff: 17:00 Eastern (14:00 Pacific, 22:00 London)
Referee: JP Doyle (RFU)
Assistants: Dean Richards (RFU) & Paul Burton (RFU)
TMO: David Sainsbury (RFU)
Broadcasts: NBC Sports, BT Sport