George North eager for the licence to roam with effect

Powerful Wales winger frustrated by his largely curtailed role at Northampton

George North: “I want to be on the wing. I want to have that space to run at people.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

George North: “I want to be on the wing. I want to have that space to run at people.” Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

In some respects it’s a throwback to childhood and the ‘give it to the big lad,’ philosophy of mini-rugby. But there comes a time when the big lad has had enough of the blunt force trauma of being gang tackled.

George North appears to have reached that watershed moment judging by his comments earlier in the week about the role he’s asked to fulfil with his club, the Northampton Saints that often sees him used as a battering ram, colliding with multiple defenders.

At 6ft 4in and a steak dinner over 17-stone, North cuts an impressive physical specimen, albeit that backs of his stature are increasingly prevalent in modern Test rugby.

He isn’t even the biggest wing in Wales’ match-day 23 for this week’s Six Nations opener against Ireland at the Aviva stadium on Sunday as that honour falls to Alex Cuthbert.

North though possesses a subtlety to his game that’s less commonplace among the giant backs that often look to trample rather than circumvent defenders.

Other examples

There are plenty of other examples but largely in the red of Wales, where backs’ coach Rob Howley understands how to maximise the 23-year-old wing’s impact on the game.

North expressed his preference thus: “Wales want to play a quick game and an open game and that suits me down to the ground. I want to be on the wing. I want to have that space to run at people and have the opportunity, rather than carrying straight into a wall.

“Sometimes you need to be that guy, which I don’t mind doing. But when you’ve got the opportunity to have 50 metres of space and you can open the taps, there’s nothing better in the world than doing that. For me it would be nice to step away from Northampton now, get a different stimulus.”

The Welsh wing moved from the Scarlets to Northampton in 2013 for what was reported to be a record transfer fee and signed an extension to his contract at the end of last season, so he’s obviously not unhappy at the club. Nor is he fazed by the physical demands imposed on him at club level in the Aviva Premiership.

Concussive incident

An accidental clash of heads with Wales’ team-mate and hooker Richard Hibbard had followed on another concussive incident earlier in the same defeat to England at the Millennium Stadium in the 2015 Six Nations when he caught England secondrow Dave Attwood’s knee.

Wales were lambasted for allowing the player to return to the pitch in the first of the two incidents. There followed an equally bad traumatic brain injury in a collision with Wasps’ Nathan Hughes in an Aviva Premiership match. A neurosurgeon stood him down from rugby for nine weeks.

He said before returning to play for Wales in last year’s World Cup: “Because I suffered the impacts in a short space of time, the specialist said a month’s rest is the adequate amount of time for a brain injury to recover.

“We said we would review the situation after that and I was told if I came back for the end of the season and took another blow, I would have to spend three to six months doing nothing at all.

“You have to look at the bigger picture. Rugby is a game; you can’t play it forever. It was important to me that my health was fine and then I could progress to training.”

North has managed just three tries in 12 matches for the Northampton Saints this season, occasionally lining out at centre – he’s played there too for Wales – so there is obviously an element of frustration there, perhaps exacerbated by a team that’s struggling to hit their straps.

He has also only scored one try in six Test matches for Wales this season, including the recent World Cup.

When examining the table below, his strike-rate for club and country is reasonably similar; 23 tries in 55 caps for Wales compared to 25 tries in 51 matches for Northampton. It’s the nature of the extra curricular work that he finds less palatable at club level.

On Sunday at the Aviva Stadium he won’t shy away from the cluttered human corridors and pinball collisions – but given a choice he’d prefer to roam free and have the licence to endorse his comments.

George North’s try stats

Wales (Caps: 55, Tries: 23)

2015-2016: 6 Tests, 1 try.

2014-2015: 7 Tests, 4 tries

2013-2014: 11 Tests, 6 tries

2012-2013: 7 Tests, 1 try

2011-2012: 19 Tests, 8 tries

2010-2011: 5 Tests, 3 tries

Northampton (Caps: 51, Tries: 25)

2015-2016: 12 games, 3 tries

2014-2015: 16 games, 14 tries

2013-2014: 23 matches, 8 tries

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