George North is expected to be named in Wales' squad on Wednesday to face Italy next weekend despite infuriating his Northampton Saints bosses by failing to attend Saturday’s Aviva Premiership encounter with Sale.
The 25-year-old has been short of game time this season following a series of knee problems which have limited his appearances for club and country.
After impressing twice off the bench for Wales in recent weeks he had been expected to feature for his club Northampton on Saturday ahead of a possible return to the starting line-up at the Principality Stadium next Sunday.
His unexplained no-show left Saints interim head coach Alan Gaffney fuming as his side slipped to their 11th Premiership defeat of the season as Sale’s England hopeful Denny Solomona crossed for a first-half hat-trick at Franklins Gardens.
Asked why North wasn’t involved against Sale, a clearly unhappy Gaffney said: “It's a pretty good question and it's a very difficult one to answer at this moment in time. You'd probably have to ask George. We picked the side that actually wanted to be out on the pitch and the best side for Northampton. I haven't spoken to George personally about it, but I'm just disappointed he wasn't here.”
North, who signed for Northampton from Scarlets in 2013, will return to Wales next season after signing a National Dual Contract with the Welsh Rugby Union in November.
While his unlicensed absence clearly infuriated Saints, it is understood the winger remains in contention for a place in Warren Gatland’s squad to face the winless Azzurri as Wales look to put their Six Nations campaign back on the rails after back-to-back defeats to England and Ireland.
Gatland is expected to make a raft of changes to his starting line-up following last weekend’s loss in Dublin and North is pushing hard for a starting spot, probably in place of Steff Evans, while fellow British and Irish Lion Taulupe Faletau is also expected to return at No8 in place of Ross Moriarty.
Faletau played for Bath against Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop on Sunday after playing 80 minutes against Sale last weekend following the knee injury he sustained in the European Champions Cup defeat to Toulon last December.
Faletau, one of the world’s outstanding No8 forwards, has not featured for Wales since they beat South Africa last autumn and his return to action would be a huge boost to Welsh fans smarting from the narrow losses which ended their title aspirations.
The 27-year-old, another whose future is in doubt after reports he will leave Bath at the end of his contract in 2019, has suffered three medial ligament tears in 15 months since joining the Premiership outfit but insists he holds no grudge against Toulon centre Mathieu Bastareaud for the reckless charge at the side of a ruck which caused his latest lengthy lay off.
“I haven’t watched the incident back but it was my knee against Matthieu Bastareaud and there was only ever going to one winner,” Faletau said. “It’s one of the risks of playing rugby unfortunately. I’ve got no hard feelings. The rules are there in place to protect players. You can’t add anymore or it would kill rugby.
“The injury was frustrating because before it I felt I was playing as well as I have done for some time. I was just getting back into a decent form. The sort of form I was hitting last year [for the Lions].”
Conor O’Shea’s Italy side are on a record run of 15 Six Nations losses in succession and Gatland is set to ring the changes as he looks to build experience in his squad ahead of next year’s World Cup in Japan.
With any hope of claiming the title gone, Wales could run the risk of a repeat of last November’s woeful display against minnows Georgia when a second-string side came within minutes of suffering a humiliating home defeat.
“It surprises me to hear Italy are on a record losing run because just to watch them play you’d think they are playing some decent rugby,” Faletau said. “It doesn’t seem long since they beat South Africa (November 2016).
“Wales are going to want to put the defeat to Ireland behind them and get back on winning ways. There’s no chance of taking Italy lightly.”
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