By Owain Jones
IT’S BEEN the Frazier v Ali of the 2013 Lions Test Series. George North and Israel Folau have provided rugby fans with some stellar moments of drama in the first two Tests. So, with a round to go, we spoke to two legends of the game, Australia’s 102-cap fly-half Stephen Larkham, now backs coach with the ACT Brumbies and 91-cap Wales and Lions wing Shane Williams to run the rule over two of the most exciting players in world rugby.
Williams on North: “They say reading of the game and positional play comes with experience and George is ahead of where I was at the same age. He’s still learning the game and there’s no better place to learn the game than out on the flank. Rugby is very technical nowadays and his positioning is continually improving, along with his workrate. You can see how he’s already trying to manipulate defences. He is running off No 10s shoulders, popping up in midfield and he’ll even turn up on the other wing looking for work.”
Larkham on Folau: “Izzy is naturally talented athlete with in-built skills from his NRL and Aussie Rules background meaning he is comfortable with balls in the air and passes well off both hands. He has a great standing leap, a strong fend and he’s able to offload well. One thing he doesn’t do is back himself to kick. In the few games in Union, he’s played at the Waratahs he’s played at full-back where his lack of positional awareness has been shown up, particularly defensively. In the Tests, he is less vulnerable on the wing. There are also some instances when he’s not working hard enough with his kick-chase. I was a bit skeptical when Robbie Deans said he needed to get his hands on the ball more in the Second Test but I was really impressed. With little room to move he created opportunities for the team to go forward, especially for Adam Ashley Cooper’s winning try.”
Williams on North: “George is a very powerful guy, you only have to look at him to know that. He has his own individual programme and trains hard doing power weights – he doesn’t just work on his bench press day after day. Look at how easily he picked up Israel Folau! He’s very meticulous and works hard with conditioner Adam Beard. At just 21, he is one of the most powerful wings in the world.”
Larkham on Folau: “Israel is in the top, top bracket for power, but what sets him apart as a player is his athleticism. I’m told he has a good attitude at training and works hard. He’s a big guy, 6ft 4in and 102kgs, and for his size electric on his feet. His step, as we saw in scoring in the first Test is unbelievable.”
Williams on North: “Every one talks about his power but George is deceptively quick. One day he could move in one to No 13 but he’s easily quick enough for a wing and reaches 40 metres in under five seconds. The speed coach Frans Bosch has worked with him closely over the years, as I did over the World Cup, and I know he’s a player constantly wanting to push the boundaries of what he can achieve.
Larkham on Folau: “Once Izzy gets his hands on the ball, he has unbelievable feet and he’s very, very quick. As I’ve said, he’s still learning when it comes to wing-play in rugby union. He played a bit of league on the wing, but the roles are subtly different. You need to help your full-back defensively. It’s not just linking with everyone else, but rabbiting down the field trying to put the pressure on. He’s gaining invaluable experience with the Waratahs at full-back and that’s helping him out with his understanding of wing play.”
Williams on North: “What you don’t expect from George is such good footwork. Okay, sometimes he doesn’t need it because he can run over the top of players but for his try against the Wallabies, Berrick Barnes didn’t lay a finger on him to step in and out on his left. It takes a special finisher to do that and it’s rare in an athlete over 100kgs. He’s a different shape to Folau, who is a typical rangy AFL shape, with narrower hips is very springy, he strides out a bit like Usain Bolt. George is sharper on the turn, he can find the outside yet keep his power. Folau tried a couple of offloads which didn’t come off but George is clever, he knows when to hold onto the ball and when to get rid of it. He rarely wastes ball.”
Larkham on Folau: “Israel is very laid back and gets on well with all the players. I haven’t heard anyone saying a bad word about him. There’s talk that he’s seen the light in rugby union and he knows there are regular big-occasion Test. In many ways, there are similarities with Sonny Bill Williams. They have a similar skill-sets and Sonny Bill was a revelation. I think he’s seriously considering Union and I hope he stays.”
It’s coming up to the final round we’ll find out on Saturday who’s going to land the final knockout blow.
Stephen Larkham and Shane Williams were speaking on behalf of Land Rover, for more visit www.landrover.com