Premiership Final: Saint George ready to slay the ghosts of Twickenham
Winger seeks win at last in Saturday's clash with Saracens
Ask George North for his freshest memory of Twickenham and the big Wales wing makes a noise as if he has found something nasty on the sole of his shoe. "It's one of those ones you look at and go 'urgh'," says North, thinking back two months to his and Wales's painful loss to England in the Six Nations Championship. "I think we left about four tries out there and in international rugby, how tight it is, you can't afford to leave tries out there for fun."
Will it colour North's feelings at the same stadium on Saturday, when his club Northampton face Saracens for the Aviva Premiership title? "Yeah, I'll go 'urgh'," he replies. "No, you buck up and move on, you don't dwell on that stuff. Lee Dickson [Northampton's England scrum-half] summed it up for me the other day. I said 'Twickenham's not all that, I'm not looking forward to it really'. And he said 'but this time you'll go back and not be booed'. And I said 'oh actually I am quite looking forward to it then!' I'll only get booed by the Saracens."
Eleven weeks ago, among a number of Wales's near misses, North made a chip ahead when he might have fed Dan Lydiate for a try, and a forward pass when Leigh Halfpenny was sniffing a scoring gap. Twickenham was also a scene of ruination for Northampton a year ago, when their captain Dylan Hartley was sent off in the Premiership final for abusing the referee Wayne Barnes, and they lost to Leicester.
The atmosphere had a crackling buzz reflected in, or perhaps contributing to, Barnes's occasionally fraught refereeing and Hartley's simmering temper. It is thought JP Doyle will get the appointment on Saturday.
"These are the days you dig in for," North insists, "when you're trudging round knee deep in mud in December." The days he anticipated when he joined Northampton from the Scarlets last summer. The reasons his region let go a 6ft 5in, improving 21-year-old who was about to wow the world afresh on the Lions tour of Australia are symptomatic of the financial and philosophical mess in Welsh rugby.
Alex King, Northampton's backs coach, joined from Clermont Auvergne at the same time. When I asked him for a comparable wing talent, King cited Sitiveni Sivivatu, Clermont's world-renowned All Black. "Siti is a phenomenal athlete, a guy who gets on the ball and stresses defences and changes games with a single touch," King says. "If George can develop his game sense, getting on to opportunities with his power and size and speed, he can become one of the best wingers that's ever played the game." And King, who won Heineken and Premiership trophies at Twickenham as a fly-half with Wasps, says the big occasions should bring the best performances out of the best players.
North, 22, sets himself high standards. He says his first season at Saints has been "up and down", and that he hasn't made the impact he'd have liked. Yet the past 12 months have been replete with memorable moments. There was the stunning break past a clutch of England players to create what would be voted the Premiership's try of the season for Jamie Elliott at Gloucester in the third week of September. Or the victory away to Leinster when North, in the centres, scored a try and bamboozled the great Brian O'Driscoll's blitz defence with soft hands.
The dramatic judo lift of Australia's Isreal Folau, and the thunderous first-Test score on the counter in Brisbane ("one of the great Lions tries," said Sir Ian McGeechan). Plus a series of obdurate tries for Wales in Cardiff, including a skilful, stooping pick-up against Australia in the autumn, and three more against France and Scotland.
"Little things in training will annoy me," North says, as we speak before Friday's Amlin Cup final win over Bath "and I'll want to do it better, and get it right next time."
North says he is only helped by his girlfriend Becky James being a world-champion cyclist. "It's nice to have someone who understands what you're going through," North says, "so you don't have to explain that something happened in training, or you're sore, or you have media requests, or you've got an appearance. She knows the score because she does that stuff herself."
In the regular-season Premiership meetings, Northampton and Saracens each won the home fixture. "Saracens have been the on-form team, the most consistent," North says. "They play a good brand of rugby, they've got the pack to compete on all fronts and they've got the backs behind Owen Farrell that can create stuff and score tries. But we'll have had an extra day to recover, and that might have a bit of a bearing."
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