IT'S A big day for Newcastle Falcons as they officially open their West Stand before the first of what Rob Andrew has described as "eight cup finals."

They face Harlequins in front of the Sky TV cameras today (2pm) knowing that defeat will leave them wondering where the next Premiership point is coming from.

Seven successive defeats have left them six points adrift of Bath at the bottom and they are desperately hoping that the big occasion atmosphere will give them a huge lift today.

Tickets for the new 3,800-seat stand have almost sold out, helped by the anticipated debut of Natal lock Mark Andrews, who won 77 caps for South Africa.

After a three-month rest - he says it's the longest break from the game he has had for years - Andrews claims he will be fit for only 50-60 minutes' action.

He was pitched straight into training on arrival ten days ago and the Falcons will want to squeeze the maximum benefit from what could prove to be their biggest signing since Inga Tuigamala.

While 23-year-old 6ft 8in Scot Craig Hamilton has made good progress in the second row this season, he will have to make way for a player whose vast experience could hold the key to Newcastle's Premiership survival.

Andrews' Natal Sharks teammate Warren Britz is also likely to make his debut in the back row, but new hooker James Christian has not recovered from his shoulder injury, so the choice is between Nick Makin and Matt Thompson.

On paper, this is the easiest of the Falcons' eight remaining matches and victory will send them to Leeds next Friday night with high hopes of another win.

Then it gets tougher, but Bath have an equally difficult run-in and it could come down to the final match, when they host the Falcons on May 10.

After that well over half the squad will be out of contract, but Andrews has signed an 18-month deal and will be with Newcastle whatever happens.

With dire warnings circulating about a tough year ahead financially for all clubs, some are already trying to cut players' salaries.

There will inevitably be some fall-out from Newcastle and the management want to see some players in action who currently cannot get a game with the Falcons.

Discussions are going on about which of those players might turn out for Darlington Mowden Park, but expectations that at least one would play for the National Three North club today have not materialised.

John Parkinson, who is Newcastle's chief executive and Mowden's Director of Rugby, said: "When players come back from international squad sessions with minor knocks it means that others cannot be released."

If flanker Rob Devonshire does eventually become available for Mowden it could become even harder to fit him in now that Tony Irwin is fit again.

After playing a full game for the seconds last week following his heel operation, he is expected to start at blind side if today's first team match at home to Liverpool St Helens survives a morning pitch inspection.

Jon Dye will be out for two or three weeks with the knee injury he suffered last week, so Aaron Redaelli switches to No 8 with Vaha Faleovalu at open side.

Otherwise the side is unchanged, with Jon Wrigley continuing at scrum half and Anthony Elwine at centre. It is hoped Chris Mattison will be fit to take a place on the bench.

Darlington's North One match at home to Driffield is off because the pitch is frozen.

It's a blow for former first team prop John Coleby, who had been drafted in because Dan Miller has a hamstring injury and Phil Lancaster was unavailable.

It's also another unwelcome setback for the club following Sandal's cry-off last week.

It means they have played twice in seven weeks, which is not the best preparation for next Saturday's crucial match at Chester.

After that Darlington have rearranged matches at Aspatria on February 15 and West Hartlepool the following week, while March 8 is vacant for a visit from Sandal or Driffield.

West are at home to leaders Cleckheaton today.

* The draw for the Durham Challenge Trophy semi-finals to be settled by March 22 is: Houghton v Sunderland, Seaton Carew or Bishop Auckland v South Tyneside College or Seaham.

The Durham Second Teams Cup draw is: Westoe v Darlington, Billingham or Blaydon v Ryton. Third Teams Cup: Darlington v Blaydon, Darlington Mowden Park v Gateshead.