George North: 'We'll show England respect this time, but not too much'
He is 6ft 4in, 17st and still only 19. George North is the wonderful Welsh winger who is being compared to Jonah Lomu. He may be an absolute monster on the pitch but he's a pussycat off it. He talks to Chris Hewett
There will come a moment at Twickenham this afternoon when George North, an unusually large and athletic specimen who plays his bread-and-butter rugby for the Llanelli-based Scarlets regional side, runs smack into Ben Morgan, an unusually large and athletic specimen who plays his bread-and-butter rugby for... the Llanelli-based Scarlets regional side. At this point in the contest, the last lingering vestiges of comradeship will be lost in an eye-watering crunch of bone, muscle and sinew. "Can't wait," says North, grinning from ear to ear while driving his right fist into his left palm.
"Only joking," he continues after a moment's reflection on the subject of his Gloucestershire-born clubmate, whose recent decision to play international rugby for the land of his birth rather than the country that gave him his break as a professional sportsman was one of the more significant events of the year so far. "I know I'll be seeing Benny Boy at some stage during the game and when we meet up, I won't be taking any liberties. He's so strong. Mutantly strong is the way I'd put it.
"And as time goes on, he's going to be an incredible player. He had a tough decision to make and he went with his heart, which was fair enough. I'm pleased for him that he's got himself sorted. We've had some great banter this week. I enjoy a bit of fun on the text with the non-Welshmen in the Scarlets team: there's Sean Lamont up in Scotland and now Benny across the bridge. I'm sure the fun will continue on the pitch, although when Ben runs at you it's no laughing matter."
Generally speaking, it does not occur to North that he might come off worse in a one-on-one collision. A teenager he may be – he does not turn 20 until the middle of April – but as that combine harvester of a Samoan wing Alesana Tuilagi discovered during the World Cup in New Zealand, not to mention many less substantial individuals over the last 15 months of red-shirted mayhem, the most talked-about back in Europe is no one's idea of a snotty-nosed kid with ideas above his station. North is not quite Lomu-esque, but at 6ft 4in and the best part of 17st he's getting there. As for the rest of his vital statistics, try these for size: 10 tries in 17 Test starts, including two against the Springboks on his debut and another couple against England on his first venture into "swing low" territory.
Then there was his performance against Ireland in the opening round of this tournament – an attacking display so potent that any sane bookmaker would have stopped taking bets on the identity of the Lions left wing in Australia next year by close of play. "Mind you," admits North, as honest as he is good-humoured, "that offload for Jonathan Davies that everyone raved about – it wasn't meant to happen. The ball somehow fell out of the back of my hand and went straight to him. And what happened in the second game against Scotland? Jonathan clipped my ankle and I had to go off. The bastard."
That injury might easily have cost North his place today. "I was in agony for a couple of hours, then had to limp around in an orthopaedic boot," he says. "I've had trouble with the ankle before – it doesn't bother me often, but it won't go away completely. Still, I can't complain. I'm completely fit for this one and I'm looking forward to the challenge. Last year's game at Twickenham was a World Cup warm-up: competitive enough, but not quite as I imagine this will be. A Six Nations game is a different thing entirely."
North's direct opponent back in August was a fellow paid-up member of the Brick Outhouse Wing Society – namely, Matt Banahan of Bath, who was three inches taller and, hard as it is to believe, much heavier. The outcome? A comfortable 10-0 points decision to the Welshman. This afternoon, he will come face to face with the more traditionally equipped David Strettle. Or rather, face to thin air, assuming the comparatively minuscule Saracen does not attempt to play on stilts.
"I suppose I might have a little bit of a power advantage, but Strettle will ask different questions with his footwork," said the Welshman. "In this day and age, you play against all sorts on the wing: Tuilagi on one extreme, the smaller guys on the other. As well as playing with Shane Williams for Wales, I played against him in training and in Scarlets-Ospreys games. He may have been small, but he was a right bugger to handle. That's the fun of the game. Different opponents, different challenges.
"That goes for the teams you face as well. A lot has been said about England, about them being a new team finding their feet. There have been some glimpses of really good rugby from them, and even if they'd shown nothing, there's no way I'd be going to Twickenham underestimating them. Last August, when we lost, we showed them more respect than was necessary. We were the fitter side, but didn't capitalise on it. We'll show them respect this time too, but not too much. We're a more confident side now, more comfortable under pressure. And with a Triple Crown at stake, there'll be plenty of pressure."
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