After another stellar season at the forefront of a Grand Slam-winning Welsh outfit, and some huge performances on tour with the victorious British and Irish Lions, George North is setting his sights on the Aviva Premiership. Back in April, his move from Llanelli Scarlets across the border to Northampton was confirmed, following much controversy that took the form of an unsightly public dispute between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions. This was a row the player found himself at the centre of, and was understandably uneasy when questioned on the speculation that abounded in the media at the time regarding the underlying reasons behind his departure.
“I can’t really answer that one, can I? It’s one of the difficult ones – not just the Scarlets, but all four regions are struggling financially. My move to the Premiership could be the first of many, or, if something were to change in Welsh rugby – which I hope it does – we could retain the players within Wales.”
Certainly, North joins a long list of Welsh stars currently plying their trade outwith their home nation, with plenty of talk regarding the so-called “player exodus” from the four pro-teams. Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips are at French Top 14 outfits Clermont and Bayonne respectively, with both Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate joining up with Parisian side Racing Metro this season. The winger has mixed views on the effect this will have on the game in Wales.
“It’s a double-edged sword really, when you have your top guys playing away – it’s really not the best image for Welsh rugby. But it’s a great chance for the younger boys to break into the RaboDirect Pro 12. It’s a tough few years for them to find their feet. Once they do find their feet quickly, it’s only going to push the national game on.”
His own reasons for leaving the Scarlets and Welsh rugby behind are fairly straightforward, in that the regions were simply not able to match his fast-growing ambitions.
“Where the Welsh game is at the moment, I didn’t feel I could stay within the regions – we weren’t really coming eye to eye. I looked at other options, and I didn’t think I was ready for a big move to France. I’m still a bit of a homeboy, and I’m still very young, and I wanted to stay as close to home as I could.”
His move, a little over two-hundred miles northeast to Franklin’s Gardens came, then, as little surprise, and seemed tailored to fit the desires of the twenty-one year-old. Northampton are undoubtedly a club capable of big things, both domestically and in Europe, and suitably close to home for the hulking winger.
“The move to Northampton was a great opportunity for me. They are a good club; we have a great chance of winning some silverware – they’ve been in the mix the past two years. I’ve got family around the area as well.”
North’s desire to take his club career to the next level is abundantly clear. He speaks with real ambition and drive of his aim to get his sizeable hands on a major trophy alongside his new team-mates.
“At any club, you want silverware. That’s the benchmark for whether you’re successful or not. No-one sees second or third place; all they see is what you win. This year, Saints have recruited really well, I like the feeling down there, and I think we’ve got a great chance of really staking a claim to winning some silverware.”
It was another incredible year on the international stage for the Welshman, culminating in that comprehensive third test Lions victory. North got his name on the scoresheet once more in Sydney, having notched a sensational solo effort some pundits ranked among the greatest ever Lions tries in the opening test match.
Away from the buzz of the three clashes with Australia, the provincial teams the Lions faced also came under heavy fire for fielding perceived weaker teams against the tourists. Claims that teams such as the Western Force and NSW Waratahs, who opted to name under-strength sides in the warm-up games, were “devaluing” the tour gathered pace in the media as the test matches loomed large on the horizon. North alluded somewhat to the lack of competition provided by the provincial opposition, but asserted that they still provided vital preparation for the Lions.
“At the end of the day, people can moan and have an argument about what team they played, but you can only play what team is put in front of you. There’s no point in stomping your feet about it. We used those games as chances to try things out; to try new plays, to try wide plays, to try different strike plays. It was good for us; we felt the better for playing those teams.”
The demanding schedule of the Lions tour also came in for much criticism, with many calling for the tour to be extended, and for more accommodating turnaround times between games. Again, though, the winger was keen to point out that the players were more than happy to adapt to the intensive programme.
“In years gone by, players would be away for three or four months, and playing games left, right and centre. I found that the tour was busy, but we had enough time to recover in between games. The squad selectors were able to move selections around so that boys were getting rested. It was a tough tour, but then that’s what you sign up for, isn’t it? It’s a Lions tour, not a holiday camp.”
When questioned on the potential for the Lions to branch out in future, perhaps including trips to Argentina or the USA, North was equally measured in his response.
“Obviously, the tradition is that you go down to the three big ones, but Australia, South Africa and New Zealand don’t necessarily need the PR or the impact. I can see people speaking about that soon, touring Argentina or somewhere like that to really pump up rugby and make it a bit more of a world game, rather than the game as we know it now.”
It is refreshing to come across such a young player who, despite huge success within the sport, remains so level-headed and down to earth in his opinions. At the age of just twenty-one, North has accomplished more in several years of professional rugby than many do in their entire careers, and it would take a brave man to bet against him fulfilling his aim for more silverware in the future. The season ahead represents a big one for the Welshman – a step up at club level, and his first tilt at a league and indeed a club generally renowned for its more tight, physical gameplay. The Lions tour has catapulted him even further towards the top of the rugby world, and with that will come the heavy weight of expectation upon his still-youthful shoulders. George North has shown he is more than capable of bearing such burdens, however. Just ask Israel Folau.
BMW Performance Team members Alex Corbisiero and George North were taking part in the BMW #UltimateChallenge. For news on the next Ultimate rugby experience follow @BMWRugby
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images