NEWCASTLE FALCONS director of rugby Dean Richards has rung the changes ahead of tomorrow night's pivotal home game with northern rivals Sale Sharks.

Tomorrow’s Kingston Park clash pits fifth-placed Falcons against the team one point and one place behind them, with both sides still harbouring realistic ambitions of forcing their way into the Premiership play-offs.

Last weekend’s defeat at Worcester dented Newcastle’s hopes of a top-four finishing spot, and Richards has reacted by bringing in eight new faces to take on Sale.

Flanker Gary Graham returns after injuring his neck during an England training session in early February, and will play alongside Ally Hogg in a freshened-up back-row. Will Witty replaces Sean Robinson in the second row, while Michael Young returns from a leg injury to start at scrum-half exactly a decade on from his Newcastle Falcons debut.

Joel Hodgson replaces Toby Flood at fly-half, with Juan Pablo Socino starting for the first time since February in place of Josh Matavesi. Simon Hammersley replaces Alex Tait at full-back.

“The way things are poised in the Premiership table means this is set up to be an absolutely cracking game with a huge amount riding on it,” said Richards, who has presided over an unbeaten home run that stretches back more than four-and-a-half months in all competitions.

“We’ve taken a few bumps from last weekend and put some fresh bodies out there, it will be an interesting game and it certainly won’t be an easy one against a good Sale side who enjoyed a late win at home to Wasps last Friday. Sale will be on a high from that result, they’re playing some good rugby and I think it’s great for the north that you’ve got the both of us in the top half of the table.

"For us, it’s a must-win game in terms of keeping our top-four hopes alive, and if we don’t win then we can almost kiss the semi-finals goodbye. That’s not a mathematical certainty, but you have to be realistic about the fact it will be extremely difficult to make the top four if we don’t win this one.

“Sale have a very good scrum-half in Faf de Klerk who really controls things and they have some gas outside as well. Their forward pack deserves a lot of respect, they have been going well and we’ll definitely be made to work for everything.”

Newcastle Falcons: Hammersley, Goneva, Harris, Socino, Sinoti, Hodgson, Young; Lockwood, Lawson, S Wilson, Green, Witty, Welch, Graham, Hogg.

Replacements: Socino, Vickers, Davison, Olmstead, Burrows, Takulua, Mermoz, Tait.