Rhys Priestland: Praise for North star
The Wales No 10 may not be getting his kicks but he's not concerned... he plays with George North
Every day when Rhys Priestland awakes he thanks the Lord he's Welsh. There's a very good reason for this. "It means I don't have to tackle George North," he says. Four days on from the win against Ireland and, apart from the spear-tackling ban of Bradley Davies, all anyone wants to talk about in Wales is the teenager with the torso of Jonah Lomu and the hands of Barry John. As an international team-mate, and a fellow Scarlet, Priestland is happy to croon about the boy he calls "The Freak".
"I remember the first time I met George. It was when he started training with Scarlets at the start of last season," Priestland says. "I'd heard of him, he'd been playing for Llandovery and the word was he was good. But I had no idea how old he was. Well, there we were, doing gym testing, and this guy was just so much stronger than anyone else in the squad. We were like, 'Wow'.
"I chatted to him afterwards and asked if he'd done much with his time off during the summer. He said he'd had exams, and I said, 'University exams?' And he said, 'No, A levels!' I've played in the same team with him since and he still doesn't stop surprising me."
Take Sunday at the Aviva Stadium, with the home side on top and the Blarney Army sounding the call to arms. From nowhere, the wing, 6ft 4in and 16st, barges through the defence before providing Jonathan Davies with the sweetest back-of-the-hand pass. It was like watching the Incredible Hulk take a second to perfect a Rubik's cube.
"I was standing right behind George when he gave that offload. And I had to stop," Priestland says. "I couldn't believe what I'd just seen. He's already a superstar – and he's only 19."
North makes the game simpler for a playmaker like Priestland who doesn't have to don the traditional wizard's cape of the Welsh No 10 and perform all the magic himself. "You'd be lucky to have one player like George on your team, because a player like him does not come around very often," Priestland says. "But we've also got Jonathan, Jamie [Roberts] and other big lads who are fast. I wouldn't fancy them lot running at me all day. So part of my job is unleashing this back line."
Since emerging at last year's World Cup as the rank outsider of three to win the race for the fly-half jersey, Priestland has exuded the sort of intelligent control for which his coach, Warren Gatland, was so desperate. In Priestland's words, "It's about me playing with my head up and weighing up the options". The Welsh game plan focuses on making their defence as much a virtue as their attack. With this in mind, Priestland, 25, often applies boot to leather. He is a tremendous kicker out of hand and has always had the reputation at being just as adept off kicking tee. Until last weekend.
Priestland took three kicks at goal and missed them all. Two hit the post and the other fell miserably short. Early in the second half, Leigh Halfpenny assumed the duty and it was the full-back's penalty in the last minute which secured the comeback win. Nobody was more relieved than Priestland.
"Let's just say it helped that we won," says Priestland, who dismissed the notion he was rusty after a two-week break through injury. "I spoke to some of the coaches and I told them it felt bitter-sweet to me. I was disappointed with the way I kicked, but I was over the moon with the way we played and, of course, that we got a win against such a strong Irish team. Over time I've learnt that you can't keep dwelling on things.
"A few years ago, that would have affected me. I'd worry what people thought. But I spoke a lot to [Scarlets coach] Nigel Davies about it back then and he said, 'The people who criticise you couldn't do it, so keep your head down and keep believing in yourself.' It did take a while to convince myself that's the best way to handle it and it's still a work in progress."
The progress is evident, both in his game and his maturity. It was his decision to chuck the kicking tee to Halfpenny, and Priestland understands he must prove himself to see it chucked back. "Yeah, I'd like to kick against Scotland," he says. "But the way Leigh has kicked it's going to be hard for me to get it back off him. I just have to forget what happened last weekend and if I do get another opportunity I have to take it. If not I'll just try to concentrate on every other aspect of the game."
There's plenty of "other aspects" at No 10, a position which only seems to grow in influence with every passing season. This week witnessed Dan Parks' retirement from international rugby and Priestland can sympathise with the Scot concerning the levels of abuse he received from disgruntled fans. But he is determined to never become a victim of the boo brigade.
"You have one off-day and they think someone else should be playing," says Priestland. "I had some stick a few years ago, but not on the same scale as Dan, as I was just playing for the Scarlets. It is hard but you just have to do your best not to take any notice.
"I recall once getting a bit annoyed. Someone shouted something and my mother got upset. But I told her it's part and parcel of her coming to watch me. If you don't want to hear what people have to say you shouldn't turn up for games. I'd say it's probably harder for the family who have to listen it."
Not that Priestland's family has heard anything but praise in the last six months. His elevation has been one of the crucial factors in Wales' rise and his attitude sums up a young squad in which professionalism reigns.
"There are no egos, just everyone wanting the team to do well," he says. "It's like with Bradley [banned for seven weeks yesterday for a spear tackle]. Looking back, he knows how silly it was and we've spoken about it as a team. We can't let our discipline cost us games. It's not about what any one of us does, it's about what we do as a team."
Priestland is evidently a disciple of the Gatland gospel that the rugby whole is greater than the sum of its rugby parts. Even when it includes Big George.
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