George North: Leading the charge for a Welsh hat-trick

Win the Six Nations for a third year and this Wales team will be compared with the legends of the Seventies, but, the winger says, he just sees it as a step towards the World Cup

There were just nine minutes left on the clock at the Stade de France, the scores level at six-apiece, a sense of nervous expectation among both sets of fans, Wales facing the threat of a ninth consecutive defeat in their second game of last year’s Six Nations.

A Dan Biggar drop goal seemed the likeliest option as Wales edged ever deeper into French territory, finally finding themselves cemented on the Gallic 22.

Whether Biggar had the three points off his boot in mind is unclear but a misjudged pass by the replacement scrum-half Lloyd Williams negated that option so Biggar, with France’s tacklers fast approaching, deftly chipped ahead.

The ball bounced just once and popped up inch-perfectly into the hands of George North, who bulldozed François Trinh-Duc to sneak into the corner and help give Wales the win that turned the corner, the first of four en route to a successful Six Nations title defence.

North is a scorer of great tries, ask anyone from the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane to Swansea, from a scintillating first Test try of last year’s Lions tour to the 70-yard breakaway try earlier this month that gifted Northampton victory over the Ospreys.

His potent attacking threat will be one of many key assets as Warren Gatland’s side look to defend their Six Nations title again and win a hat-trick of championships, emulating the great Wales side of the early Seventies that achieved the feat in 1971 with the likes of Gerald Davies, Barry John and Gareth Edwards.

For a player well-versed in the history of Welsh rugby, the 21-year-old slightly splutters at any comparison of the two line-ups more than four decades apart.

“Those guys weren’t just good, they were awesome, they were legends,” says North, cutting the comparison short immediately. “For us, it’s another step towards the World Cup. As a side, we don’t talk about records and titles, we just focus on what we’re doing. We just work hard and keep our heads down.”

It is a far cry from 12 months ago, when Wales were being vilified. Gatland was on sabbatical to prepare for the Lions tour Down Under and his side had undergone a barrage of defeats, including unlikely losses to Tonga and Argentina. And then in the opening 40 minutes of their Six Nations campaign they were torn asunder by a rampant Irish team, going into the interval 23-3 down.

George North gets Wales up and running against France last year (Getty) George North gets Wales up and running against France last year (Getty)
Casting his mind back, North recalls: “Ireland just came out with a hell of a tempo and we had no answer. We’d lost that first game by half-time, and everyone had written us off. Everyone then came together: staff, coaches and players, and said, ‘everyone else is doubting us, let’s get to work’. We felt from there that every session counted, that every day could make a huge difference.”

The turnaround in attitude had the desired result but also a knock-on effect, the team’s momentum sweeping into a Lions side rich with Wales players with the result a 2-1 series win on Australian soil.

North, though, insists he and his team-mates are not about to rest on their laurels. “We’re pleased with what we’ve achieved but we always want more,” he adds. “We always push ourselves forward, that will never change. That’s our mentality. There’s no end to it and that’s hard.”

Part of the hardship is the fitness requirements of Gatland. Mere mention of it brings a momentary sigh from the golden boy of Welsh rugby but, at the same time, he revels in that environment.

“Everything’s set up perfectly from getting the right protein to wearing recovery tights to getting mentally right. It’s hard but the results speak for themselves,” he says.

Things are not about to get easier any time soon – at least not at international level – with Gatland having recently signed a contract extension until 2019.

The gargantuan Wales wing, who measures in at 6ft 4in and weighs 17 stone, talks with genuine affection for his coach. “He’s got a great rapport with the players and great respect,” he explains. “His brand of rugby is hard and fast and physical, we love that. It’s hard to get yourself up for that as your body has to be in such good shape.”

So what exactly is Gatland like as a coach? Is he a man prone to employing the hairdryer treatment? “He doesn’t necessarily ‘F’ and blind like some coaches do,” says North. “I’ve heard him shout a couple of times but he’s normally very calm and clinical. He doesn’t say much but, when he does, it’s gold.”

It was barely six months ago when the New Zealander was being castigated for his Lions selections, in particular for dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the series decider. Despite the criticism, his choices were proved right and Gatland has been sweeping up the coaching accolades ever since.

Looking back, North admits: “As a player, and a Welsh player at that, I felt for him having so much stick and abuse. When he pulled it off it was amazing really.

“I remember him coming out afterwards and saying it was the worst 72 hours of his life for the amount of abuse he took. It took an amazing set of cahoonas to do what he did, to drop Drico. It was a massive decision but it goes down in history now.”

The strong and silent type is obviously the theme at the Welsh helm. Wales captain Sam Warburton is, according to his close friend, the same in his approach.

“Sam just does his talking out there,” says North. “He’s such a nice bloke but when you’re playing with him you’re like ‘wow, he’s a vicious man’. He’s such a grafter, he puts his body on the line and you can’t help but follow him.”

For now, confidence is high in the Wales camp ahead of the visit of Italy on Saturday. North, though, is less sure of the future as the player exodus continues and key personnel leave in their droves to France or the English Premiership.

The former Scarlets flyer is among those to have already taken the plunge with a switch to Northampton last summer. It is a tricky issue and one that does not sit comfortably with North.

“It was a difficult decision but it was the best thing for me,” he says. “It’s difficult looking at mates going through the same thing I went through, looking for more security. There’s no right answer and it’s a shame as at the end of the day the quality of rugby will go down. Something needs to be done but I don’t know what. How long have you got?”

North had a bit of a slow start at his new club but is now making his mark with his trademark tries of brilliance, finally achieving his goal, he says, of “imparting my Welsh ways on the boys”.

It has seen him come into collision course with the Welsh public on at least one occasion, though. He can expect an infinitely less frosty reception when he takes to the field at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday than his last playing experience on home soil.

It was earlier this month for Saints against the Ospreys, during which he scored that 70-yard try, showing the sort of speed and muscularity that have defined his career to date. It effectively dashed the Ospreys’ Heineken Cup ambitions.

“I got a bit of abuse,” he says, laughing nervously at the recollection. “It was mixed. Some of it was light-hearted, like ‘we’re fine you doing this for Wales, not just against Welsh sides’.”

When you see North play – whether it be for club or country – the frightening fact is that, despite already having 35 international caps to his name, he is a mere infant in rugby terms and is still some way off being the finished product, which takes some pondering for the world’s best defences.

He also feels older than 21 – well, to some degree. “Every day’s a learning day at the ripe old age of 21,” he says before adding: “When I’m at work, I’m an old man but in life I’m a 21-year-old. I don’t mean I’m immature, just that I’m a chilled-out 21-year-old.”

Time away from rugby is predominantly spent with his girlfriend, the British cyclist Becky James, who next month has her own sporting ambitions at the World Track Cycling Championships in Cali, Colombia.

His move to Northampton has more than halved the journey time to Manchester where she is based but February is not a month they tend to see much, if anything, of each other.

James has been pestering North to have a go on the banked velodrome in Manchester. He has yet to take up the opportunity. While she will be pounding round in circles next month, North’s focus will be elsewhere, pounding  Six Nations defences. It is a task he has already fulfilled to good effect.

George North is an ambassador for Maxinutrition, the sports nutrition product of choice for elite and amateur rugby players. For more information, visit: www.maxinutrition.com

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there