The Heineken Cup clash between Ospreys and Northampton Saints was a game that matched the West Wales weather…it was a bit grim.
Handling errors and botched opportunities aside, the match was raised out of the rugby doldrums by a certain G. North who lit up the gloomy Liberty Stadium pitch with two dazzling runs early in the second half, one of which led to a try for the giant winger. For Welsh fans it was a bittersweet moment: North’s try last Sunday was the latest in a string of scores for a player who appears to be on top form at the moment, and the sight of George speeding away down the touchline will have been welcomed by many fans ahead of the Six Nations. Yet the fact that this run of form has taken place in the green of Northampton must be of concern to anyone who wishes the best for the Welsh regions. George North is, quite simply, a match winner and while the national team are still able to reap the rewards of this natural talent, it is a great shame that he no longer lines up for a Welsh side in such Heineken Cup matches.
Of course, he’s not the only Welsh player to have decided to ply his trade outside of the principality. The ever-increasing list of international players leaving Wales (which includes Jamie Roberts, Dan Lydiate, Mike Phillips, James Hook and Luke Charteris) will be added to next season following the departures of Jonathan Davies, Richard Hibbard and Ian Evans. So why does it matter? Well, in recent months, the main argument for why effort should be made to keep these players has been that they are needed to inspire the next generation of players and to increase interest among supporters. They are both valid points. But the obvious effect of losing such talent is that they make a team weaker while, conversely, making European opponents stronger. This was illustrated quite beautifully at Sunday’s match. Yes the Ospreys have plenty of star names such as Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Adam Jones and Dan Biggar but their current squad lacks the type of player that can turn a game on its head…a player like George North. Subsequently, the Ospreys huffed and puffed for most of the 80 minutes on Sunday without producing the goods. The Welsh regions find it difficult enough to compete in Europe…if the player-drain continues, they’ll have no hope at all.
Elsewhere last weekend, the Heineken Cup produced its first batch of quarter-finalists with Ulster, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont, Munster and Leicester all taking their place in the last eight. It’ll be a tight scrap for the remaining two places this weekend (as the graphic below shows) with Leinster, Saracens, Northampton, Cardiff Blues, Edinburgh, Harlequins and Connacht all still in with a shout.