George North ready to offer his midfield services
Winger North could start in a more-involved centre role as listless champions go in search of inspiration for visit of France.
George North says he is “happy to do a job at centre”, which will be something of a relief to Warren Gatland who now seems almost certain to be without Jonathan Davies for France’s visit on Friday.
The Wales camp has all but given up hope of Davies fully recovering from a pectoral injury in time and are now hoping he can appear for the Scarlets next week to bring him into contention for the trip to Twickenham in three weeks' time.
With Scott Williams – whose shoulder injury against Ireland led to North moving inside – ruled out for the rest of the Championship, Gatland has a No 13 crisis.
Ashley Beck, the Ospreys midfielder, has been called into the squad but neither he nor Jamie Roberts, or indeed, James Hook, are naturals in the outside slot. Young Owen Williams, from the Blues, would be the obvious choice but he is sidelined with a tweaked hamstring.
The most likely course of action is for Gatland to start North in the position he finished in the 26-3 defeat in Dublin and start Liam Williams on the left wing.
None of which would worry North one iota. The 6ft 4in, 17st phenomenon has filled in for Northampton in that position – actually getting the better of a certain Brian O’Driscoll in a European match against Leinster – and was described last week by Shane Williams, Wales’s record try-scorer, as “physically, the perfect outside centre”.
North is not so sure. Long-term he sees his future following in Williams’s sidesteps, but short-term he would be content enough to see Mathieu Bastareaud and Wesley Fofana flying in his direction.
“My heart is still set on the wing,” he said. “Naturally you get your hands on the ball more at centre and are involved more in defence.”
The latter he feels will be crucial against Philippe Saint-André’s side who have won their opening two games for the first time in three years. “France will be a huge challenge,” North said.
“They have started really well and are looking good. They have got a big pack and a big scrum which showed up well against Italy last week.
“Their backline is firing well as well. Bastareaud and Fofana are both on form and the back three are looking sharp and running in tries as well.
“It’s a very potent mix and we will have to keep our eyes on them. But I’m a big believer in sides being judged on how they react to set-back and this game is a chance to show how we can bounce back.”
North has enjoyed a date with France on the rebound before. Last year, Wales lost their opening match against Ireland and in the very next, in Paris, found the redemption, which in the next month was to transform into celebration as they retained their Six Nations title.
It is the same scenario, the same opponents and the same evening kick-off. What North would do to reprise his role as match-winner; although perhaps without the pitch invader this time.
Welsh rugby folklore delights in reporting that David North was so overcome with seeing his son’s brilliant finish from a fine grubber kick from Dan Biggar that he jumped the barrier and ran on for a hug. There were eight minutes left and it plainly meant so much to the team, relatives, fans and ultimately the competition.
“We proved last year that defeat doesn’t mean it’s all lost,” North said.
“Yeah, we were outplayed last week, but we know how to come back, know what needs to be done. We are an experienced squad that has already been through so much together and that means a lot. We have made it more difficult for ourselves but we have to knuckle down.”
Gatland has seen to that, putting the squad through the Millennium mill this past week. The Kiwi has demanded a response and for Wales to remind all of their champions’ credentials – including, it seems, themselves.
“We must remember that we have lost just two of our last 12 games in the competition,” North said. “But in Wales we have massive pride in our rugby and the players feel massive disappointment for what happened last week. We need to react.”