(Picture: Getty Images)
By Peter Jackson
George North arrived at Franklin’s Gardens from West Wales one year after Chris Ashton left for North London.
The Welsh colossus reported for duty in the summer of 2013 fresh from some famous deeds for the Lions in Australia and eager to help Northampton continue to lord it over the rest as newly-crowned champions of England. They had won the title, what’s more, at the expense of the opponent they love to beat more than any other, Saracens – and Ashton to boot.
The previous week the Saints had won Europe’s secondary competition, the Challenge Cup. For North, then all of 21, no English pasture can have looked as seductively green as the one at the Gardens did that summer.
His English employers had wanted him so badly they paid £250,000 as compensation to Scarlets for releasing their prize asset a year before his contract ran out rather than wait until it did and wave him farewell without as much as a brass farthing, as happened to the Dragons and Taulupe Faletau.
When the Saints renewed North’s contract for two more years, the player declared himself ‘massively delighted’ to be continuing at ‘this great club.’ Nothing much stays the same for long these days and by season’s end North and the Saints will go their separate ways.
Not everyone in a town famous for its shoes sounds as though they will be losing any sleep over his impending departure. Lennie Newman, the Saints’ former team manager and second row, likens North to a Ferrari minus the ignition key.
Newman knows the score, speculating that North’s dual contract with the WRU and an as yet unnamed region will be based on less money, fewer games and ‘looking after his own interests a bit more’. Good news for Wales and the long-term health ofa player whose form has been too ordinary for too long.
Fewer games? The dual contract elite in Wales are restricted to a maximum of 16 per season for their club/region. Since making 23 appearances in his first season as a Saint, North’s average stands at 14, a figure which would have been much higher but for the recurring issue over his well-documented concussion.
His record for Northampton over four-and-a-bit seasons amounts to 80 matches and 37 tries. Ashton’s four-season tally for Saracens – 97 matches, 66 tries – includes almost half a year in a state of suspension for biting Saints prop Alex Waller and gouging Ulster’s Luke Marshall.
Injury having brought his second Lions tour to an anti-climactic end, North has played only five times this season due to a knee problem which could extend his absence until Christmas.
Newman is not being unreasonable in talking about times over the five-seasons when North has been ‘a wasted commodity’.
Whether he chooses the Union-owned Dragons or the wounded Ospreys makes no difference to one basic fact. The domestic season runs over 38 weekends which means from a PRO14 perspective, North will miss 22 of them due to a combination of rest and national duty.
Everything will be geared to ensure Wales benefit from North’s restoration to peak condition, not unreasonably so given that they will be shelling out 60 per cent of a salary thought to be around £350,000. How much of that will be at the expense of his new team’s ambition to win the PRO14 remains to be seen.
Leinster and Glasgow have shown that it can be done, each surmounting the handicap of losing up to 20 players to Test duty for two chunks of the season and still coming up trumps. Having done likewise last season, Scarlets are now paying the penalty of that success through the loss of almost a complete team.