Monday 18 December 2017

North's form going south in search for past glory

At an age where he should be in his prime, the Welsh winger is a shadow of his former destructive self

George North has a final audition this morning to regain his Lions Test place. Photo: Getty Images
George North has a final audition this morning to regain his Lions Test place. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Question, posed by a rugby magazine here: "How good would George North be if he had been born in New Zealand?" More pertinently: how good would George North be without the multiple concussions that may have contributed to the dip in form that caused him to lose his Lions Test place?

The second question is carefully worded. Jumping to amateur medical conclusions about North's history of head injuries is risky, and potentially irresponsible. But we do know that out here North has been a phantom of the rampaging wing who earned comparisons with Jonah Lomu on the 2013 Lions trip to Australia.

His physical reticence, lack of attacking thrust and glaring defensive error in the Maori All Blacks game opened the way to Elliot Daly in the first Test, and has left North needing a tour-saving performance in Wellington against the Hurricanes this morning, where his opposite number is Nehe Milner-Skudder, one of the stars of the 2015 World Cup.

A pressurised, Tuesday audition is no place for North to be. During his rise, his phenomenal pace and power (a 40-metre time of 4.96sec - 0.32sec slower than Usain Bolt) were transformative in the northern hemisphere game.

Immortal

Among the immortal images lodged in Welsh and Lions history are his 60-metre try scoring surge in the first Lions Test in Brisbane four years ago, and his fireman's lift on Israel Folau, who he carried and then threw at Wallaby defenders.

In this era, North is an athlete-designer's dream - 6ft 4 inch and 17st 2lbs - and ought to be playing well enough to menace New Zealand on Saturday. For him, there is even more at stake than a crossroads game in his Lions career. The feeling grows that North, still only 25, is at a much bigger junction in his life.

In two outings, he has managed 68 metres from two carries, and in the Maoris game spilled a routine Milner-Skudder kick-through, which led to a try. Sir John Kirwan, the great All Black wing, later said: "If I was George North, I'd be working a lot more off the ball. I'd be blowing up at the half-backs to use me, I'd be turning up around the rucks when the forwards start to get tired. If you want to get your hands on the ball then sometimes you've got to go and get it.

"Last year when the Welsh were here (in New Zealand) he cut us up. I just think he's got the quality."

That Wales tour was a year ago: not long enough for North to fall apart. But in the meantime he has been the victim in one of the most abject and worrying concussion episodes of modern times. On December 3 last year, North was knocked out for the fifth time in two years, during Northampton's Premiership defeat to Leicester.

North was sent back on after Northampton blamed wifi problems at for not being able to study the full footage of the incident.

A two-week 'Concussion Management Review Group' investigation found that Northampton had been wrong to return North to the field, but the club escaped punishment - an act of leniency later disowned by World Rugby.

In a statement, the world governing body said: "A cornerstone criteria of HIA (head injury assessment) adoption in elite events is an individual risk stratification on all players, which is aimed at identifying and protecting high-risk players based on medical history.

It is clear that George is such a player." The context to that 'flagging' of North as a "high-risk" player was four head blows in five months (November 2014 to March 2015), with a spell out of the game from March until August 2015.

Again: to connect all these cases and assume direct causation of North's difficulties here in New Zealand is extrapolation.

Asked in January about his recovery from the Leicester incident, North fired back: "Well, you boys have to get paid somehow don't you? So you boys can make stories up. I'm all right."

Struggling

Yet followers of the game are within their rights to wonder why he is struggling to recover his old level of dynamism and physicality. After his most recent concussion, Dr Barry O'Driscoll, the former World Rugby medical advisor, was quoted as saying: "I believe it is up to George to decide. Having been told 'you're getting these frequently,' there are indications that this could lead to long-term problems."

Demonstrably, North is less assertive in the collisions here, quieter around the pitch.

The phase could pass - as early as the Hurricanes game; and every rugby fan will hope it does, because his is a rare and thrilling talent (obviously his health takes precedence).

He was the first teenager in rugby history to score 10 Test tries and was the poster boy of Wales' 2012 and 2013 Six Nations wins.

In his club campaign this season, he scored five tries from 19 appearances for Northampton. In the Six Nations he scored two tries against Ireland and one against Italy.

Ticking along, then. But he arrived in New Zealand as an aristocrat of the world game and supposed match winner, admired even by the grudging Kiwi press.

If he needs a lift before the Hurricanes game, inspirational images abound. Brisbane, June 22, 2013: a 60-metre blast past four Australian challengers, in a 23-21 Lions victory. All in the Westpac Stadium in Wellington will hope George North's career is not heading south. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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