European Champions Cup player analysis: George North, Northampton Saints
LATEST RUGBY WORLD MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION DEALS TAGS: Highlight For all of Warren Gatland‘s talk of building slowly towards the World Cup, clashes with Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and South Africa next month are extremely important for Wales. A run of no wins from 20 attempts against ‘big three’ opposition must stop. To have North in top form is a welcome boost.Thanks to BT Sport for the footage. You can purchase tickets to the European Champions Cup final here. George North is storming into stunning form just in time for Wales’ autumn Tests. We analyse his four-try haul for Northampton Saints in Saturday’s 34-6 thrashing of the Ospreys One thing about George North that never fails to astonish – more striking even than the staggering raw materials of pace, power and prodigious finishing ability – is his age. The affable Wales phenomenon has not yet turned 23. Frankly, it seems ludicrous. He could quite conceivably terrorise defenders for another decade.Beast mode: North takes Israel Folau for a rideBefore getting too carried away, we must remember one crucial caveat. Careful management will be integral to the longevity of this astounding athlete. Jaw-dropping brilliance on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia propelled him into the rugby stratosphere. However, a subsequent summer move to Northampton Saints meant immediate immersion in the grind of an Aviva Premiership schedule – hardly a soft landing.Put simply, North spent most of last term looking spent. Sure, there were fantastic performances every now and then, but while Saints stormed to the domestic title, their rockstar wing appeared too physically and mentally exhausted to offer any concerted consistency.Looking back, we should not be too surprised. North’s 2012/3 campaign encompassed 2,370 minutes for club and country, finally wrapping up on July 6 in Sydney. At times, things must have been tortuous the next season. Fatigue can form a horrible type of claustrophobia. Essentially, North’s desire to impress and hit the ground running was confined by his own body.All that feels like ancient history now. Refreshed and replenished, North has been full of verve since September, resembling his true self – a devastating weapon – week in, week out. All Black Julian Savea is another fit to eat at the top table – and with 29 tries from 29 internationals he is evidently hungry. This pair of behemoths potentially go head-to-head at Millennium Stadium on November 22. The ground will shake.North will certainly be buoyant heading into Wales’ November itinerary. He signed off with a four-try haul last weekend in the European Champions Cup, condemning Ospreys to a 34-6 thumping. Having registered a 70-metre screamer against the Neath-Swansea region as recently as January, this was more of the same – an evening that stole the headlines. There is so much more than violent velocity to North’s Midas touch. Watch his first five-pointer, just 16 minutes in:At first glance, this is a straightforward walk-in, and North does eventually stroll over the line unopposed without even needing unmarked Jamie Elliott to his left. Still, this score would have delighted Jim Mallinder beyond mere aesthetics.Turnover ball and the transition between defence and attack is a hugely fertile source of tries in modern rugby, but a team must be cohesive to take advantage. This particular opening comes about from disruption. Lee Dickson harries at the base of the ruck and Tom Wood rushes through, hitting Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb in a burly tackle before getting to his feet and blasting over the ruck.Once possession is secured, the reaction is rapid and the awareness impressive. North himself demonstrates supreme poaching ability to realign in a dangerous position.He does this so quickly and accurately that although Stephen Myler‘s pass is a ‘stopper’, as shown by the above screenshot, the chance is not wasted. Counter-attack was the name of the game for number two on the half-hour:Kick-return is another area where communication and mutual understanding make life so much easier. The combination between North and opposite wing Ken Pisi completely confounds the Ospreys. Again though, it starts with sheer graft. North is 12 metres behind the ball as Elliott fields the visitors’ clearance and passes infield:Having worked hard to get back into the game as an option, North then assesses how he can link with Pisi. A support line is the foundation of any offload – though the passer is always showered with praise and air-time, he is dictated to by the angle a teammate takes. As Pisi drifts to the right, watch how North fades in behind before cutting left: By no means is North reinventing the wheel here. Rather, he is instinctively following the basic principals of finding space. Cutting against the grain, his speed and strength are too much for wrong-footed Ospreys defenders once Pisi’s pass is gathered.Only 14 minutes into the second period, the hat-trick was complete:The finish itself comes from pure power and a decent body position, low enough to ground the ball despite the triple challenge of Scott Baldwin, Tom Grabham and Webb. More interesting is how North comes to be at first receiver. Take note of where he was just one phase earlier:As pointed out earlier, North is not shy of unselfish yards. He scoots around on a 15-metre arc in time to receive Dickson’s flat pass and career towards the gainline:If there was plenty of unseen excellence about North’s first three tries then, the fourth and final score deserved its own box office:By any standard, this is stunning. The sheer amount of attributes needed for North to manufacture the opportunity and dot down almost defies belief. It is a one-man transition from defence to attack, starting with a fearsome display of upper body muscle to strip the ball from Ospreys replacement lock (yes, lock) Rynier Bernado:James Hook is another Welsh exponent of this skill, and often manages to rip the ball loose of attackers if their presentation of the ball in contact gets lax. For North to make a clean steal is something else altogether though, and foreshadows an electric try.Searing pace of course stands out, but the precision and timing of the grubber merits plaudits too. North carries with his head up, spots the space in behind but waits until the covering defender commits, turns his shoulders in and becomes flat-footed, therefore in a helpless position to turn and recover:From there, the afterburners go on to awesome effect.