George North: Welsh wonder wing who made giant strides at World Cup
The 19-year-old talks to Chris Hewett about the hell of the Polish cryotherapy chambers and what it is really like to tackle a Tuilagi
George North, the teenage wing from Anglesey, was acutely aware of two things ahead of the pivotal World Cup pool game between Wales and Samoa in mid-September. Firstly, he understood that defeat would virtually guarantee him an early flight home; secondly, he was very clear that unless he found a way of containing Alesana Tuilagi, one of the more formidable physical specimens ever to play international rugby outside a forward pack, the chances of avoiding that defeat would be remote.
Under the circumstances, he was not obviously in need of independent advice. He received some, even so. A minute or so into the match, amid the noise and clamour generated by thousands of New Zealand-based islanders screaming support for their mother country, he found himself listening to one voice in particular. "All I could hear was this guy in the stand," North recalls. "He just kept on at me. 'Go home, No14,' he was shouting. 'Get your mum to pick you up. We won't think any the worse of you if you leave now. We're scared of Alesana too.' It really got to me, so when Tuilagi came running straight at me I hit him hard with a tackle – woomph – and knocked him into touch. That made me feel good. I felt like turning towards the voice and saying... I won't go into details. But there might have been a tiny gesture, while I was pretending to scratch my ear. Just to make the point."
North made many more points as the tournament unfolded, and scored a few into the bargain: there were two tries against Namibia and a third against Fiji. But these were not necessarily the highlights of the 19-year-old Welshman's first experience of a global gathering. To his way of thinking, the challenge of facing world-class wings he had spent the previous few years watching on television – analysing them, envying them, yearning to be like them – was the most thrilling part of the adventure. Best of all was a second meeting with Bryan Habana, the record-breaking Springbok wing who was already in possession of a World Cup winner's medal.
"A lovely bloke, Bryan, and a hell of a player," says the strapping Scarlets prodigy. "Ages ago, I'd watched that clip of him on YouTube, racing against a cheetah in Africa somewhere. It made a lasting impression on me, so when I played against him on my Test debut in 2010 and ended up scoring a couple of tries, you can imagine how I felt. But to go against him in a World Cup match, with so much riding on the result... that was something else.
"Mind you, we were so disappointed to lose a game we really should have won – and by a single point, too. Sometimes, it's worse to lose by one than a hundred: well, maybe not quite, but you know what I mean. We'd gone to the tournament determined not to be a Wales team remembered for throwing the ball around and nothing else. We wanted to be remembered as a side who had been competitive, who had proved they could perform on the very biggest stage. And now, because we hadn't taken our chances, we were in a dogfight with the Samoans and the Fijians. It was time for us to remember the hell we'd been through in Poland and make it work for us."
Ah, Poland. If ever there was an eye-opener for a young sportsman barely out of swaddling clothes, that was it. North had started the year injured: a shoulder operation before Christmas had left the troublesome joint significantly strengthened – "bionic, I call it" – but not quite up to the rigours of a Six Nations Championship. He missed the first four rounds, before being recalled for the final match, against France in Paris. "One league game for Scarlets, against Edinburgh, and then straight back in, which was a bit of a shock to the system," he says. Then, at the end of the season, it was off to Spala, a village 30-odd miles to the south-east of Lodz; home to 400 locals and a world-renowned sports complex equipped with cryotherapy chambers, famously described by the Wales captain, Sam Warburton, as "evil saunas".
"I'd never really had a proper pre-season of any kind, so I wouldn't have known quite what to expect had we stayed in Wales," North admits. "I certainly didn't know what was on the cards in Poland. It was horrible, if I'm being honest." At this point, he makes a noise that is only part-human – a cross between "yuk" and "ugh", combined with something Tolkien might have invented for his Orc language – by way of conveying his displeasure. "As I understand it, cryotherapy helps you train harder, for longer: it gets rid of the lactic acid and takes away the soreness you feel after a session. You're still bruised, but you can hit training really hard the next day as if you're perfectly fine. But the price is sitting in temperatures down around -145C. It did my head in, I can tell you.
"Over the course of 11 days, we completed more than 100 training sessions of one kind or another. The sheer volume of work was amazing: everything was geared to doing one more rep, one more sprint and then getting up in the morning and doing it all over again. We knew it was necessary to go through it if we were going to play the kind of rugby we wanted to play and – talking as someone new to the international game – it certainly showed me where I had to be in terms of professionalism. There are rumours circulating that we're going back before the Six Nations. Maybe if I don't talk about it, it won't actually happen."
According to North, the benefits of being Spala'd were evident almost immediately. "We played England in the first of our World Cup warm-up games at Twickenham and while we lost, narrowly, we felt we finished more strongly than they did – that we were fitter, basically. It didn't matter what people said about our performance on television, or what people wrote about us in the press. We knew, deep inside, that we'd done the work: all the squats, all the circuits, all the miles. It was what allowed us, after pushing the Springboks so hard in our opening World Cup match, to look at each other with confidence and say: 'We're still in this tournament.' What would have been the point of going through hell in Poland if we couldn't have said that? We could have gone to Barbados and played beach volleyball instead.
"I'm absolutely sure that the Poland camp carried us through against Samoa. That was a really intense, physical game – they're not the cuddliest team on earth, the Samoans – and I remember tackling like a madman for what seemed like the whole match. We all tackled like madmen. And in the end, we came through. There's a picture of me at the final whistle, in this gang hug with Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies. I was so happy. I'll always remember that feeling."
The remainder of the tournament went by in a haze. Wales saw off Ireland in the last eight – "A funny one, that: we knew them, they knew us, no one could hide anything from anyone" – before losing, again by a point, to France in a semi-final distorted by an early injury to the prop Adam Jones, perhaps the most important player in the side, and the profoundly harsh dismissal of Warburton, who tip-tackled Vincent Clerc and left the Toulouse wing flat on his back, albeit none the worse for wear.
"If I'm honest, I didn't think the French had much substance that day," North says. "There are times when you think: if they're really on their game, our chances of winning are pretty slim. It wasn't like that in Auckland. Even after we lost Sam, there was never a point when I thought they had much to throw at us, that they could hurt us. To lose in the way we did was pure frustration. At the end, I was so tired I could barely walk. I was certainly too knackered to talk to anyone. I just lay down on the floor of the changing room and stayed there for half an hour, silent. It was the worst I'd ever felt about rugby. My mum and dad had been in New Zealand for the pool stage and had reserved tickets to go back if we made the final. That defeat saved them a fortune. Believe me, there was nothing else good about it."
To go from the best of sporting feelings to the worst in the space of a week... that is quite a test of a 19-year-old's mental fortitude. Wales need have no fear of North failing the examination. He knows what he wants and has a clear idea of how to go about getting it. "Looking back on the World Cup, it was an incredible experience," he says, "but I'm treating it as a stepping stone. I want to play in the next one, in 2015, and to do that, I have to meet the standards I've set myself, which are very high. I know Scarlets will help in that – the people at the club do a fantastic job in keeping me grounded – but I'll drive myself, too. There's an OCD side to me when it comes to rugby: if I don't play well, I go through the whole game in my head before I go home, work out where I went wrong, then sit down and go through it on tape. I never feel I'm done. There's always something I can do better, something more to achieve."
He sounds for all the world like another rugby obsessive – a bloke by the name of Wilkinson. "I've never had the chance to sit down and talk to Jonny," says North. "I'd like to, one day. That would really interest me."
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