Rugby is an easy game to play from the stands, and an even easier one to predict from behind a computer screen.
Thankfully, the uncertainty of one set of human beings going up against another means tomorrow’s match between Newcastle Falcons and Northampton is still wide open.
Look at the stats and you could be forgiven for writing this one off before a ball has even been kicked, not that Gonzalo Tiesi or any of his Newcastle team-mates are in any way inclined to do so.
The cold facts are these; Northampton sit top of the Premiership, unbeaten in the league in their last 11, while the Falcons lie second-bottom without a victory in their last eight.
Ah, but what about home advantage?
Well, the Saints have won their last eight on the road in all competitions, and have not been beaten by Newcastle in any guise for the past five years.
The Falcons failed to score a single point against them when the two teams met at Franklin’s Gardens back in November, and Dean Richards’ side only have one more Premiership point at the 14-game mark than they did during the same stage of their 2012 relegation season – averaging only a try every other game, the lowest total in the league. There is, of course, a stat to suit any argument in this world; the Falcons having won their last two home games and last weekend having taken a bonus point from title-chasing Harlequins.
Tomorrow’s visitors are without five England players and a Welsh international due to Six Nations call-ups for George North, Dylan Hartley, Tom Wood, Lee Dickson, Luther Burrell and Courtney Lawes, Newcastle in contrast having only Scott Lawson away on senior international duty.
The Falcons at long last have a midfield partnership in the true sense of the word, Samoan wrecking ball Jamie Helleur’s route-one running being offset perfectly by the astute timing and vision of Argentina international Tiesi.
The Pumas star might have had to sit for two months before making his debut thanks to the torn hamstring he suffered on international duty, but it seems to have been worth the wait based on his three appearances so far.
“I am really thankful to have had the confidence shown in me to play after being out for a couple of months, especially with being a new club, a new set-up and a different style of play,” said the 28-year-old, capped 37 times by his country in a 10-year international career.
“I cannot talk too much about what happened before I started playing, but in these last two games against teams who are going for the title (Bath and Harlequins) we have shown some good performances.
“Obviously turning those into wins is going to be the main thing, but we have shown we can compete against the best teams in the competition.”
Relishing his link-up with Helleur (pictured left), Tiesi said: “In the last couple of games we have played with more ball in hand, and the partnership between myself and Jamie seems to be working.
“We try and give a bit of go-forward and direction, getting the basics right. Sometimes that can be the most difficult thing to do, but it is what gets results.
“Jamie is a very physical player who hits good lines, and from my perspective that makes him a great inside-centre because I can run angles off him. He gives me a lot of confidence in defence with his inside shoulder, and so far we have enjoyed playing together.
“There are plenty of quality centres at the club with Adam Powell, Danny Barnes and James Fitzpatrick, and we have a number of good guys who can come in.” Rightly picked out for his defensive leadership during the past three matches the former London Irish, Harlequins, Stade Francais and London Welsh man is keen not to be pigeonholed as a negative player.
“I enjoy defence as much as attack,” said Tiesi, who forms part of a side throwing three changes from last weekend’s 18-14 loss at Harlequins.
“I have maybe been labelled as being a bit more defence-oriented, but I work all the time on my attack and you can always improve in every aspect.
“If I am a bit more solid in my defence in my attack then that is just the natural characteristics of my play, but I am trying to develop my offensive game as well and both are obviously important to any player.”
Coming into the side for tomorrow’s 3pm kick-off are prop Oliver Tomaszczyk, hooker Matt Thompson and No 8 Ally Hogg, Andy Saull missing out through injury as Will Welch switches to open-side and Mark Wilson slides round to No 8.
Noah Cato and Alex Tait swap back to their customary roles of winger and full-back respectively, Tiesi stating: “It is all about imposing ourselves at home.
“Northampton are missing a few key players, but they knew that at the start of the season and will have built their squad with that in mind.
“They pride themselves on physicality. They will try to outmuscle us upfront and in the centres, and it has worked well for them both in the Premiership and in Europe. They have had a lot of success, which we have to respect, but we have to back ourselves to have a go at them.
“Matching them in the physical confrontation will be key, and if we give them front-foot ball we will struggle. Set-piece and the breakdown will be vital, and I am looking forward to it.”
NEWCASTLE FALCONS: A Tait, N Cato, G Tiesi, J Helleur, R Shortland, R Clegg, M Blair; R Vickers, M Thompson, O Tomaszczyk, S MacLeod, F McKenzie, M Wilson, W Welch (captain), A Hogg. Replacements: G McGuigan, G Strain, K Brookes, S Tomes, C York, W Fury, J Hodgson, A Powell.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: J Wilson, K Pisi, G Pisi, T Stephenson, J Elliott, S Myler, K Fotuali’i; A Waller, M Haywood, S Ma’afu, S Manoa, C Day, C Clark, P Dowson (captain), S Dickinson. Replacements: R McMillan, E Waller, G Denman, GJ van Velze, B Nutley, A Day, G Dickson, B Foden.
Referee: A Small.