George North signs for Northampton
The Scarlets wing George North has agreed terms with Northampton over a two-year contract despite late attempts to keep the 20-year-old in Wales. The move, which was flagged last month just days after Wales had retained the Six Nations title with a record victory over England, has exposed deep divisions in the game and led to a public argument between the four regions and the Welsh Rugby Union.
The Scarlets who, like all the other regions, have masked losses over the years through financial backing of directors, accepted a transfer offer from Northampton last week, which one report suggested was £250,000. North was at Franklin's Gardens 10 days ago discussing terms and he will become one of the Saints' best-paid players: he would technically qualify as their marquee signing, which would mean his salary would not be part of the Premiership's cap.
North did not agitate for a move from the Scarlets, where he had another year to run on his contract, and his preferred option was to see out his deal. The region forced his hand, offering him a two-year extension on improved terms knowing that he was unlikely to make more than 10 appearances for them next season because of international calls and a likely rest period after touring with the Lions, but the wing turned it down.
As he did not want to move to France for personal reasons, Northampton was his only alternative to signing a new deal with the Scarlets. The WRU said in a statement last Sunday that North had been hawked around by the Scarlets without his knowledge and the Union tried to place him with another region, believed to be Cardiff Blues, and contribute to the player's salary, but it failed.
The Scarlets issued a statement denying the WRU's claims. It was part of a war of words that culminated in the Union inviting the four regions to hold talks on centrally contracting the leading players in the country. North is the third member of the Wales squad this season to leave a region for another country, with Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate bound for France in the summer.
What is concerning the WRU is that 70% of the Wales squad who are with a region are coming out of contract next year, including the captain, Sam Warburton, and the full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who was voted the player of the 2013 Six Nations. The Union offered to centrally contract players last August, but the move was rejected by the regions who said it would deplete their central funding to an extent that they would not be able to compete in Europe.
The regions have yet to respond to this week's offer for talks on central contracts, although privately they have said they will not entertain the idea unless they are given guarantees over funding. One radical option for the Union is to offer contracts to the players whose deals end next year, although they would need to find teams to place them with.
The former Wales captain Gareth Davies hopes North's departure will be a catalyst for proper dialogue between the regions and the union, not sniping. "We are only a small country and we need to pool our resources," he said. "At the moment there seems to be totally different agendas and it would be a good idea to lock everyone in a room for a week to resolve this messy affair."