Tuesday 21 November 2017

Curious George

As winger’s form heads south, troubled Welsh star needs to rediscover the true North, writes David Kelly

Wales winger George North appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Wales winger George North appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images

The profile

"There's two types of players boys. The honest player. And the rest. The honest player gets up in the morning and looks at himself in the mirror. And sets his stall out. And says I'm going to get better. I'm going to get better. I'm going to get better." - Jim Telfer, legendary Scotland and Lions coach

Who will George North see, as he does in the current Gillette promo, when he looks in the mirror this week?

Will it be the rapacious, rampaging, brickhouse-built winger who trampled all over the Wallabies on the 2013 Lions tour?

Or will it be the player who touched the ball just three times amidst an execrable Murrayfield defeat a fortnight ago, making as many tackles - three - as tackles missed, and turning over the ball once?

The one-time teenage prodigy, twice a scorer on his Test debut against South Africa, will turn 25 next month and is likely to earn his 68th cap against Ireland this Friday.

Yet there are growing questions as to his worth to a side struggling with the transition from the direct style of 'Warrenball' that, once so successful, is now increasingly redundant in a sport steadily threatening to re-establish its impish grace.

The Lion has turned mousey before our very eyes.

Predictable

And, as his long-serving Welsh assistant coach Shaun Edwards added his voice to the growing chorus this week, no longer can the player shield himself behind the predictable defence that the dreaded media, or ignorant supporters, are just producing white noise.

The talk is now piercingly threatening to undermine a gilded career that has produced so much already in its relatively brief lifetime but may, perhaps inevitably, have reached a critical juncture.

Aside from questions of temporary form loss, North's recent travails have been compounded by the more devastating and worrying temporary loss of consciousness that have seen him, all too regularly, escorted from the field in extreme discomfort.

Sadly, and with more potentially damaging consequences in the future for his health and well-being, his bristling bullishness in waving away these concerns cannot be entertained as fleetingly as his weakening attempts to continue to justify his place in the Welsh national side.

At 6ft 4in and 17st, North remains a bruising, brooding presence in any side but his physical form has not been able to withstand a diminishing drop in the exalted standards that have swept his country to Grand Slam glory and the Lions to a Test success.

Four years ago, he was approaching the peak of his immense powers, despite the fact he had only just turned 21.

His opening Test effort was a classic for the ages; a magnificent return of Berrick Barnes' lengthy clearance from his own 10-metre line, a step away from James O'Connor, a jink evading Barnes before a dash past Will Genia to score in the corner.

He had the world at his feet - and still found time to carry Israel Folau upon his shoulders, an astonishing image that went viral globally and demonstrated the supreme power of the man.

Now, it seems, he is carrying the problems of the world upon his broad frame and the whispers from the Valleys carry rumours that another poor performance could cost him his place for the Welsh, as well as gravely imperilling his prospects of linking up once more with Gatland on this summer's Lions series in New Zealand.

Edwards was not slow in publicly adding weight to the speculation this week, in what is obviously attempt to extricate the lumbering Northampton Saints behemoth from his current slumber.

"If he is selected, I expect George to certainly be on his mettle," said Edwards. "I also think that George had a very good game against Italy, in very, very difficult circumstances. He got a really bad bang on his leg and toughed it out well.

"Yes, he wasn't at his best against Scotland but I think great players, who've done great things for you in the past, sometimes deserve a warning."

It is not the first such alarm; three years ago, on a summer tour to South Africa, against whom he had announced himself in 2010 with a try-scoring brace on debut, a missed tackle cost his side a first ever win on Springbok territory in the second Test.

That autumn, Wales then revealed that he would have been dropped for a home Test against the same opposition; instead, a lack of fitness spared him the inevitable scalpel.

So the warning signs, as Edwards alluded to, have been there for some time.

The issues with form and fitness were compounded by a series of concussions from 2014, including two in one game against England, which were blithely ignored and the problems have trailed him ever since, culminating in a recent concussion controversy in club colours, from which neither club nor player emerged with any honour.

Gatland has publicly questioned the long-term well-being of his player and a dismal World Cup campaign in 2015, despite his side's Twickenham trumping of Stuart Lancaster's England, failed to quell the concern.

"He definitely needs to put himself and his long-term health first and make sure he sees the right people until he does get the all-clear," Gatland said.

Australia ruthlessly targeted him last November, a tactic which was cunningly replicated by Vern Cotter's rampant Scots this spring; Ireland and Joe Schmidt will have surely marked him down as a defensive weakness waiting to be exploited this Friday night.

Telfer's words atop this page come from a new promo video for Gillette and end with the words, "He doesn't complain ... and only at the end of the day will the man who has stayed on his feet win the final battle."

Wales need North to find his feet on Friday amidst suspicion that the very ground upon he once bestrode like a colossus is now as uncertain as shifting sand.

Irish Independent

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