North on the Up
Four games into the Lions Tour of Australia and Warren Gatland must now be starting to turn his thoughts towards his preferred Test XV. Whilst the Queensland Reds game can be considered the only real test of his team so far, the strong performances against weaker opposition will help to confirm what Gatland already knows about his squad.
We all knew before this tour that George North was a powerful, strong-running winger with handling skills to complement his clout. However this tour has shown that he is far more than just a short-range weapon. Yes, the tactical kicking game of the Wallabies will be a different challenge for the Lions’ back three but they have shown signs already that they will be a real threat on the counter attack in the forthcoming Test matches.
North scored a brace for the Lions in their game against a rather disjointed Combined Country XV but it was his performance against the Queensland Reds which gave rather more cause for excitement. Collecting a kick inside his own 22, North crabbed sideways, past three defenders, before finding a hole in the defensive line and breaking through the tackle of a fourth man. He then wove his way past a covering defence, drawing the full-back and putting Sam Warburton away for what would have been a certain try to Justin Tipuric.
The 21-year old North looks set to join Leigh Halfpenny and Alex Cuthbert in what is shaping up to be an all Welsh back three. Cuthbert has racked up three tries already on the tour and looks to have cemented his place ahead of Tommy Bowe, who had been ruled out for at least two weeks with a hand injury.
Halfpenny has continued his impressive kicking record at full-back and must surely be the man Neil Jenkins hands the tee to against the Wallabies on June 22. Gatland is not short of options in his position though, after impressive showings from Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, and with Rob Kearney still to feature, but it would be a surprise if the Player of the Six Nations was not handed the Test match start.
It is perhaps no surprise that it is the Welsh players that are thriving under Gatland’s system, after familiarising themselves with his game plan at international level during his tenure as Wales coach. Mike Phillips and Jamie Roberts have also started the tour well and would fancy their chances of starting the Tests.
The extent of Welsh influence in the Test pack is more difficult to determine at this stage. Gatland has been cautious of revealing Test combinations in the forwards, wary of exposing his set-piece to the Australians. Mako Vunipola, Richie Gray and Jamie Heaslip will all hope they have done enough to disrupt the spread of Welsh red in the Lions scrum.
The coming games against the Waratahs and the Brumbies will hopefully give the Lions more of a challenge and give the English, the Irish and the Scottish a chance to show their suitability to the Gatland game plan. As Test combinations begin to form will the Welsh domination continue or will we see new faces come to the forefront of Gatland’s thinking?