The awards, accolades and praise for George North just keep on coming after another stellar year for the explosive Wales wing.
Two more tries for his country last weekend against familiar foes Australia added to the lustre and, on Thursday, the 21-year-old powerhouse received possibly the most humbling recognition when he was voted onto to the players’ World 15 of the Year at the inaugural International Rugby Players’ Association annual awards.
It caps a glittering 12 months which saw North help capture another Six Nations title for Wales and land a first series victory for the British & Irish Lions since 1997, playing in all three Tests against the Wallabies and scoring a try in each of the victories.
Rob Kearney got to know North during that tour Down Under and was impressed with what he saw and learned about the 6ft 4ins, 16-and-a-half stone wing. He will face his former Lions team-mate at Franklin’s Gardens this evening but reckons the former Scarlets tear-away can be contained.
“He’s obviously a world class player and he’s developing every week it seems,” Kearney said. “But, you know, we had him in the Heineken Cup last year with Scarlets and we managed him pretty well.
“He is manageable and it’s going to be a job for whoever is marking him but you get into the space early, you try to shut him down as quickly as you can, you try and limit the times that he does get the ball and you certainly have a head start in doing that.”
Asked for some inside knowledge from the Lions’ training field, Kearney wasn’t exactly forthcoming outside the obvious.
“He’s pretty big,” the Leinster full-back said with a smirk, “he’s quick, he’s strong. But you do pick up little intricacies on how he likes to play and things like that.
“But that counts for very little when it’s all happening pretty quickly in front of you. But these guys are pretty good at doing their analysis and they know their little things that they like to do, and that’s part and parcel of preparation for big games now.”
Kearney’s younger brother and fellow Ireland back Dave had certainly done his homework on North. When he spoke about the Wales and Lions star earlier this week he suggested Leinster needed to close off his space and stop the Saints winger getting up a head of steam.
“That’s going to be the key,” Dave Kearney said, “because if he gets a bit of space and gets to use that power and pace, he’s pretty tough to stop.”
Israel Folau will attest to that. The Australian dual-code international got the full-on North experience during the second Test against the Lions in Melbourne when the Wallaby grappled with the Welshman in possession and found himself hoisted on his back and carried fireman style across the halfway line.
All in all, not too bad a year for North, but this was no breakout campaign for him in the Test arena.
With a World Cup semi-final appearance in 2011 and a Grand Slam in 2012, it has already been quite the career for North, but now is the time to match his international success at club level and a summer move from Scarlets to the Premiership’s Northampton was a step forward in that objective.
Saints lost their pool opener in Castres in October before getting back in the hunt for a quarter-final place with a home win over the Ospreys.
The three-time champions, though, are a different proposition and North will have to step up if Northampton are to beat Leinster for the first time in Europe at the fourth attempt.
Three more Saints to watch....
Tom Wood (blindside flanker)
A back-row warrior extremely unlucky not to make the Lions tour this summer. The Saints use him as a third lock at the lineout but it is at the breakdown where he comes alive with bristling physicality. And when he does get hit, he just gets back up and goes looking for more.
Samu Manoa (lock)
The American is a big unit, a really strong ball carrier who can brush off tackles and get Northampton over the gain line. His skill set was highlighted against Worcester last week when he trucked the ball up the middle and got away a great offload in a tackle which sucked in numbers to leave wing Tom Collins wide open to score in the corner.
Stephen Myler (fly-half)
Northampton’s Mr Dependable with the boot who has seen off more creative yet less predictable rivals at Franklin’s Gardens with his consistency over a number of seasons. Kicked seven out of seven attempts at goal last week against Worcester and Leinster have to be disciplined not to give him a sniff at the posts.
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