North's fairy-tale debut lacks a happy ending
Wales 25 South Africa 29
Monday 15 November 2010
A saintly George on a crusade to fire the life back into the Dragon? If that seems a variation on the legend, then the remarkable debut of a remarkable 18-year-old at least allowed Wales to leave the field on Saturday thinking of something other than another southern hemisphere slaying.
George North was the name on every set of lips, including those of Bryan Habana. After watching his 6ft 4in, 17st opposing wing touch down for two tries and perform with such accomplishment that many experts selected him as their man of the match, the former World Player of the Year broke a long-held habit of never giving anyone his Springboks shirt.
"He deserved it, not just for his attacking play but the huge difference he made in defence," Habana said. "He was Wales's stand-out player. They have found a gem. He can become a Welsh great."
Hype is the last thing Warren Gatland wants for North, hence his decision to hide him away from the media, and although his admission – "he's capped for us now, which is important as he has an English father" – was said in jest, any side would want him as one of theirs. As Habana suggested, his display was as mature as his nerves were steely.
North provided the evidence himself, via a statement, when describing his tries. The young Scarlet, with just a handful of first-class games under his belt, was stunned in the fifth minute when the fly-half Stephen Jones gave the call for him to come into the backline.
"When I heard Stephen say that I thought 'are you serious?'," he said, going on to describe how he scored the second-quickest debutant try in Welsh rugby history, following Barrie Williams's second-minute glory against France in 1996. "I just did my job, coming around the corner. It all opened up for me and I thought 'I'm in here'." But by the hour-mark minute it was North giving the instructions.
"This time I gave Stephen the call and it was a great cross-kick," said North, before revealing his natural modesty. "In hindsight, it was a bit silly to let the ball bounce – I should never have done that. Thankfully, the ball bounced kindly for me. It's hard coming from playing schoolboy rugby six months ago to facing the world champions. There were just a few people on the touchlines shouting for me last season and today there were 54,000 fans raising the roof at the Millennium Stadium."
He should hang around as the din is set to reach such volumes that Gatland will find it almost impossible not to select this Welsh-speaker, who was born in Norfolk, but moved to Anglesey when he was two. The truth is that, with Shane Williams suffering from a shoulder injury that will likely keep him out of the final two games of the autumn series, Gatland will have to rely on North. Will he pick him against Fiji on Friday night? Well, as the Kiwi put it, "we need the win", and the Welsh Rugby Union could do with the cash. North will put fans' bums on seats as quickly as he puts rivals' bums on turf.
How welcome his emergence is in the Principality, Wales must face up to the fact they have lost their last 12 Tests against the Springboks, 11 of their 12 against Tri-Nations opposition and eight of the 10 matches they have contested this year.
Less than 10 months out from their first World Cup group match – against South Africa – that is not the sort of form envisaged when Gatland won the Grand Slam in 2008. But his are not hollow statements; Wales truly are getting closer and the continuing "close-but-no-cigar" storyline should not mask that. They led 17-9 at half-time but were ultimately undone by a Springboks burst that produced two tries in three defining minutes.
Scorers: Wales: Tries North 2, Hook Conversions S Jones 2 Penalties S Jones 2 South Africa: Tries Alberts, Matfield Conversions M Steyn 2 Penalties M Steyn 5
Wales: L Byrne (Ospreys); G North (Scarlets), T Shanklin (Blues), J Hook (Ospreys), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); P James (Ospreys), M Rees (Scarlets, capt), B Davies (Blues), A-W Jones (Ospreys), A Powell (Wasps), M Williams (Blues) J Thomas (Ospreys). Replacements: A Bishop (Opsreys) for Shanklin 38-40, C Czekaj (Blues) 40, R Jones (Osprey) for Powell 60, R Rees (Blues) for Phillips 70, H Bennett (Ospreys) for M Rees 72, J Yapp (Blues) for James 72, D Jones (Blues) for A-W Jones, 74.
South Africa: G Aplon (W Province); B Basson (Bulls), F Steyn (Racing Metro), J de Villiers (W Province), B Habana (W Province); M Steyn (Bulls), R Pienaar (Ulster); T Mtawarira (Sharks), B du Plessis (Sharks), B Botha (Bulls), V Matfield (Bulls, capt), D Stegmann (Bulls), J Smith (Cheetahs), P Spies (Bulls). Replacements: W Alberts (Sharks) for Stegmann, 47, F van der Merwe (Bulls) for Botha 60, F Hougaard (Bulls) for Pienaar 60, P Lambie (Sharks) for M Steyn, Z Kirchner (Bulls) for Habana 74, C Ralepelle (Bulls) for B du Plessis (Sharks) 74, CJ van der Linde (Cheetahs) for J du Plessis 76.
Referee: S Walsh (NZ).
Ireland 20 Samoa 10
A win's a win and Brian O'Driscoll is pleased Ireland will enter Saturday's game against New Zealand with a much-needed victory. A 20-10 triumph over Samoa at Aviva Stadium on Saturday ended the team's six-match losing streak.
However, the performance against opposition ranked 11th in the world reinforced concerns Ireland have problems. The All Blacks are next up and while O'Driscoll refuses to panic, he admits the win was well-timed. "I wouldn't say it's a relief because we were worth our win," said the captain. "It's nice to get back to winning ways and remind ourselves what it feels like."
* Remaining fixtures:
Friday Wales v Fiji
Saturday Ireland v New Zealand, Scotland v South Africa
Sat 27 Nov Scotland v Samoa, Wales v New Zealand
Sun 28 Nov Ireland v Argentina
Sun 4 Dec Barbarians v South Africa
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