Teenager North travels in right direction from unknown to mainstay
After the retirement of Shane Williams, Wales will look to George North’s broad shoulders to carry the burden, writes Paul Rees
IT IS easy to forget that George North is still a teenager. He will win his 17th cap when Wales face Ireland in Dublin today, the same number as another wing, Nigel Walker, whose international career spanned six seasons in the 1990s.
If he avoids injury in the next couple of months, he should reach 21 before he celebrates his 20th birthday in April.
North's rise has been so rapid that he has yet to play in Ireland for anyone: during last year's World Cup his Test appearances overtook those he had made for his region, the Scarlets, but he emerged in New Zealand as one of Wales' old young men, players whose maturity and dedication set the tone for the campaign.
Shane Williams, North's wing partner last season, recounted that when the squad gathered last June to start preparing for the World Cup, North told the group that Wales would win the trophy. The notion of failure, a hallmark of Wales' five previous ventures, was anathema to him. The old guard were impressed and responded.
There were signs last month that the physical toll of a year's virtual non-stop rugby was telling on him. Tom May is not renowned as the fastest centre in England but during Northampton's Heineken Cup victory over the Scarlets he kept pace with North to foil a counterattack on, admittedly, a heavily sanded pitch.
“I have had a dead leg recently and have been trying to get over that,” North says. “I had a week off after the World Cup and not much since but I feel fine: it has been a long season and I suppose it is only halfway through but the prospect of playing in the Six Nations gives you a boost. I have not seen much of the ball in recent games for the Scarlets and you just have to keep working hard.
“I feel a lot fresher having been to the camp in Poland last week and you could say the same for a number of the boys. Everyone had a few niggles — you can't go through a season without them — but the cryotherapy in Poland did its job in keeping the body in good shape. We had sessions twice a day; on the last day we had three.”
North made his first Test appearance in November 2010, scoring two tries against South Africa and creating a number of records including becoming the first player, in a list that numbered more than 500, to have scored a brace of tries on his debut against the Springboks and he was the youngest player to have achieved the feat against any major nation. If he was then protected by the element of the unknown — although at the same height as the Wales No 8 Andy Powell and only a few pounds lighter — North is hardly inconspicuous, and he now finds himself well policed during matches with teams knowing they have to stop him getting into a stride.
“There is a bit more pressure on you when you become an established player,” North says, “but teams know they cannot afford to focus on just one player because the nature of an international team means that you are surrounded by quality. You can make a number of runs without receiving the ball and maintaining standards depends on hard work.”
It will be the start of a new era for Wales without Shane Williams, their record scorer with 58 tries. So often over the years, not least in Dublin in 2008, he proved the difference between victory and defeat and Wales have a raw back three in terms of age with the one-cap Alex Cuthbert at 21 and Leigh Halfpenny at 23.
“Shane was unique,” North says. “He was an unbelievable player and I am not sure that anyone can do the same job as him. Alex and I will really have to step up and, with Leigh, we will have to share the load. This will be the first time I have played a game in Ireland: I have only ever been there on short ferry holidays. What I do know is that it will be a great atmosphere.” North was in the side that defeated Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final in Wellington last October, a result and a performance that made the rugby public consider what North had long believed: that the men in red were genuine contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup.
“Ireland will be confident because of the way their provinces have gone this season but we have the upper hand in terms of having beaten them in the World Cup,” North says. “This is a new game and it will be difficult to maintain the standards we set in New Zealand but we have watched the quarterfinal in the week and there are areas we can improve on. Ireland will throw everything at us and we just have to take it to them.”