After six years spent going backwards, the Ospreys need a lift and George North could be just the man to provide it. Graham Thomas looks at the player and his new region as both seek a fresh start by winding back the clock.
If one man’s personal circumstance could signify the wider challenge for the Ospreys this season, then it would be George North.
Like the region itself, their new marquee signing has had a scratchy couple of years, judged by the standards of previous glories. Both player and team are seeking some kind of redemption.
The Ospreys were once so far ahead of the other Welsh regions, they needed to pull over, park up, and reach for the binoculars, never mind glancing in the rear view mirror. But they last won a trophy back in 2012 – the RaboDirect Pro12, which already sounds wistfully nostalgic.
Since then, they have bobbed up and down the final rankings in the Guinness Pro 14 and done nothing of any consequence in Europe apart from one appearance in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, a placing they trumpeted but which was put into perspective by the Cardiff Blues winning the tournament last season.
Worse still for Ospreys fans, the past few seasons have seen their biggest rivals, the Scarlets, march past them as the clear front-runner amongst the Welsh regions and a bigger supplier to the national squad.
North’s recent form and fitness has also been patchy. There have been his high profile head injuries and various periods out of the game after concussion.
His club, Northampton, have rarely added up to the sum of their parts and have slipped down the pecking order in the English Premiership, with North only showing occasional flashes of his true try-scoring talents.
For Wales, his place in the starting line-up has at times come under threat and whereas the Lions of 2013 represented a career-high point – and his acclaim as one of the most devastating and exciting players in the world – the 2017 tour was a damp squib that ended with him not even making the Test team.
But rested for the first team by a summer of relaxation rather than heavy duty touring, North is anxious to deliver a personal and collective impact at the Liberty Stadium this season, following his move back to Wales.
His early memories of the region – when North himself was bursting onto the scene as a teenager – are of high profile names and high watermark achievements.
“There were a number of reasons for choosing the Ospreys, including a little bit of history. I broke through when the ‘Fab Four’ were playing for the Ospreys – Mike Phillips, Shane Williams, Lee Byrne and James Hook,” says North.
“For me to be a part of that was huge. From a rugby point of view, if you look at the squad at the Ospreys, we have brought in players that are only going to strengthen the team.
“That excited me, as did the coaching staff. I spoke to a lot of people about Allen Clarke and they described him as a steely Ulsterman.
“That is what you get with him, someone who is very passionate about his work, dedicated to it and wants the best from everyone.
“You have someone like Matt Sherratt coming in as well, who I have worked with before, and then there is Brad Davis and Shaun Edwards. It’s exciting the platform we can push off.
“It’s nice to be back in Wales, everything is more on one page,” he admitted. “It is a long old season, the rugby is slightly different but, physically, it means I can be taken care of.”
For the Ospreys to be successful this season, will require them to regain that hard-edged physical dominance they used to enjoy when their pack could go anywhere in the Pro12 and get on top.
They still have an international spine in Scott Baldwin, Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and new skipper Justin Tipuric, but promising youngsters such as Adam Beard and Sam Cross must now learn how to hold their own against the likes of Leinster, Munster, the Scarlets and Glasgow.
But head coach Allen Clarke also needs to get a back line sharpened that too often last season was easily blunted by opposition defences.
Rhys Webb will be badly missed as an individual match-winner, but the recruitment of Aled Davies at scrum-half should ensure the speed of service remains rapid, while this season offers Sam Davies the chance to stamp his authority at outside-half after so long in the shadows of Dan Biggar.
Then, the back line has been further strengthened by the prising of Scott Williams from the Scarlets. The centre has been strangely undervalued by his previous region, and by Wales, at least from a financial perspective, but allowing him to move down the road could prove extremely costly for last season’s beaten finalists.
The Hollywood signing, though, is North. The Ospreys must hope the 26-year-old will prove box office both on and off the pitch, something which did not happen in the Midlands, where the effervescent youngster from his Scarlets days became moody, sullen and introspective.
Now, though, he sounds revitalised and refreshed by the prospect of his new surroundings.
“From a backline point of view you’ve got Scott, Al (Aled Davies), myself, Leslie Klim has come in and it is exciting to have a wing like that, and there’s a young back three including Tom Williams.
“These young players are hungry and it drives them, it drives me and it drives the whole squad to get the best out of us.
“That’s why I picked the Ospreys. The potential is there. Last season is what it is, we went through a similar thing at Northampton. There were glimpses towards the end of last season and what we have promised in pre-season is really exciting.
“I do have targets. At the moment, they are real short-term. I haven’t had a real chance to re-evaluate long-term just because it’s been a bit of a whirlwind trip.
“Having the time off and deciding to give myself a mental break from rugby. Anyone talking to me about rugby I would change the subject very quickly.
“To come in here, meet a good bunch of boys with some strong people coming in here as well as the coaching staff. I think our focus is we have got to start this first block of games with two home games against two really tough teams, we have got to hit them running.”
A North running with the force and power of old, would be one of the best sights of the new season.