This last weekend has once again pushed the issue of George North’s National Dual Contract to the forefront of Welsh regional rugby fans, as he continues to be without a confirmed side for next season.
It was back at the end of November that the Welsh Rugby Union announced George North would return to Wales after what will be five years with Northampton Saints. They pitched this as a success for the NDC system, attracting a player outside the Senior Player Selection Policy back to the country, but here we are three months later and still North is in limbo.
In that time, North’s former region Scarlets have declared themselves not interested, before deciding to hold talks, Ospreys have been suggested as where he should end up by Shane Williams, while Dragons appear to many as a back-up plan due to their WRU ownership, if none of the other three sides want him.
Now North has returned to the headlines though after not featuring in Northampton’s 24-25 defeat to Sale at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday, with interim head coach Alan Gaffney suggesting that the winger had chosen not to play for the side he is contracted to.
Of course there are two sides to every story, but with rumours of North dithering over which region he wants to play for next season, it doesn’t do much for his character reference.
For Cardiff Blues it is an interesting decision over whether signing George North would be a good move or not.
The 71-cap international has scored 30 tries for Wales, helping to win a Grand Slam in 2012 and the Six Nations in 2013, as well as scoring three tries in three tests for the British and Irish Lions across two tours.
Couple in over 100 appearances for Northampton, where he was won a Premiership and a Challenge Cup, and it’s impressive for a 25-year-old. North is undoubtedly a player of very high quality on his day.
Add in the fact that Alex Cuthbert is looking likely to be heading out of the door, and that scoring bonus points has been an achilles heel for Cardiff Blues, and there certainly seems to be a vacancy for a top class international winger next season at the Arms Park.
However, there’s a flip side to the scene set above as the signing of George North as a no-brainer for any of the Welsh sides.
Firstly, there’s North’s injury history. In his still short career to date, the winger has had five different blows to head. Four of those came in a five month period during the 2014/15 season, eventually leading to an enforced spell on the sidelines.
Former World Rugby medical advisor Dr Barry O’Driscoll told BBC Radio Wales at the time that if North were an amateur player he would have been told to retire by now, and there is a feeling in rugby circles that he is still just one more concussion away from having to call time on his career.
That risk links in with the second potential issue with signing George North, his availability. As a key member of the Team Wales squad it is likely he will be missing for the first few weeks of the season, throughout November and into early December, as well as throughout February and March.
For Cardiff Blues he would join Sam Warburton and Gareth Anscombe on NDCs with their availability restricted, while Blaine Scully and Rey Lee-Lo miss parts of the season with their respective nations.
With the likes of Dillon Lewis, Seb Davies, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins, Tomos Williams, Owen Lane and Rhun Williams due to become more and more involved in the Team Wales setup as the years wear on, is there a need to take on another player in that category?
There is also the question of priorities. Some of those players mentioned above are part of a fairly well stocked back three roster, with Scully, Dan Fish and Tom James providing the experience, with Lane, Williams, Aled Summerhill, while Harri Millard and Corey Howells are all set to break into the first team next season.
On the other hand, the tight five stocks are somewhat struggling currently. Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Fa’ao Filise and Damian Welch are on the top side of 35, Anton Peikrishvili is out of contract this summer, we recently had to utilise Dragons hooker Rhys Buckley on the bench, while Franco van der Merwe’s signing wasn’t replaced.
With money not growing on trees in Welsh rugby, far from it as we are all aware, what budget we have has to be well spent. Credit to Cardiff Blues Chief Executive Richard Holland, he was spot on when he said we have to concentrate on strengthening our pack before looking to sign luxury players like George North.
That, in the end, is the crux of the debate. We do not need George North, we would want George North. In an ideal world of French level spending, we’d be sorted. However, this is regional rugby, and even paying 40% of an NDC is still a big funding decision.
All in all, Cardiff Blues need to sort our tight five out this summer. If once we do that there is money left over to bring George North in as an end of recruitment bonus, then great. Otherwise, it will be a disappointment.
First of all though, we could do with a new head coach…