RWC 2015: George North is back heading in the right direction

'George hasn’t had side effects, he’s launched himself into contact, in attack and defence'

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The Independent Online

A veteran of 51 caps and 23 tries in a five-year Wales international career. What, George North a veteran? You mean the big lad who turns up at Franklin’s Gardens and, after training, sails his miniature motorboat in the lake under the south stand?

That is the dichotomy in North’s rugby career: that, still only 23, he should have packed away so much sporting experience, a winning Lions tour, a Six Nations Grand Slam and, starting next weekend, his second World Cup. At his first, in New Zealand in 2011 when he became the first teenager to score a try in that tournament, the Wales management had to place him off limits to the media, so great was the interest.

Yet this has been a difficult year for the Wales wing, when a succession of concussions forced him to step down from rugby for the good of his long-term health. After the third, sustained while playing for Northampton against Wasps on March 27, North went through his sport’s mandatory protocols, missing his club’s end-of-season challenge for domestic honours before resuming against Ireland (his 50th cap).

Becky James, the international cyclist who is his partner, spoke last month of her concerns when the latest injury affected North’s speech but all the evidence now suggests that normal service, including his 23rd try for Wales against Italy last weekend, has been resumed.

“As a coach you always care about the player, how he will come out of a number of concussions but George hasn’t had any side effects, any mental weaknesses, he has launched himself into contact, in attack and defence,” said Rob Howley, the Wales assistant coach. “I think in the next six weeks he’s ready to show the world his complete skill set.”

At Northampton, the club he joined from Scarlets in 2013, there was no question of fielding North before he was ready. “It would have been fantastic to have had him for the end-of-season programme but he didn’t feel himself and we were happy for him to make sure he was fit,” Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby, said.

When so high profile a player as North came on the transfer market, Mallinder did due diligence on how the then 21-year-old would fit into a completely different environment.

“We went to visit him in Wales, then had him up to look round the club. I liked him straightaway. I liked how laidback he was, how young and enthusiastic and that hasn’t changed,” Mallender said. “On the field he’s a veteran, off it he’s anything but.”

It was the maturity North brought with him, even as a 15-year-old, that struck Nigel Davies when he had charge of the Scarlets academy. Davies, the former Wales centre, has seen such jewels as Jonathan Davies, and Liam and Scott Williams pass through his hands in much the same intake.

“When you first see a guy who is so competent, you look for the weaknesses but there weren’t that many there,” said Davies. North moved to Llandovery College on a rugby scholarship, received his first full-time contract aged 17 and made his Scarlets debut against Gloucester, outplaying his vastly more experienced opponent Lesley Vainikolo.

Now, after five years on the public stage, opponents have worked North out but with his physique and rugby brain, can they stop him?

“He’s always had pace, the ability to beat a man,” Howley said, “but you have to understand the team philosophy, getting the wing into the wide channels, where he can be of most use to the team, not only at set pieces but in counter-attack.”

Mallinder believes there are gains still to be drawn from North: “You can’t play him in every single game, you want him at his best for the big ones. But I can’t think of many better role models – he’s always got time for everyone, for the secretaries at the club, for Kevin the kitman. You need people like him in the game.”

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