Warren Gatland has cried out for an X-factor if the British and Irish Lions are going to challenge the All Blacks, and against Canterbury on Saturday night, the Kiwi will unleash his not-so-secret weapon against the Crusaders: George North.
The Wales wing cemented his place in Lions folklore with his brilliant finish in the first test against Australia four years ago, though his defining moment came when he lifted wing Israel Folau and ran with the Wallaby on his back, all the while holding onto the ball.
North has been kept on the sidelines so far this tour, a frustrating start for the giant Northampton Saints wing, but he will finally get his audition for a Test jersey at AMI Stadium after fully recovering from a slight knock that he brought into the tour.
“The Lions is the highlight of anyone’s career and to go on tour and not feature in the first two games is annoying,” North said after being named in the starting line-up. “Like any rugby player I just want to play. But I’ve got my chance now and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.”
North will be expected to make a serious statement of intent, given his introduction to the Lions stage four years ago, and the New Zealand media have been keen in identifying him as the key danger man that can cause the All Blacks serious problems.
Crusaders full-back Israel Dagg even name-checked North in his media briefing this week, “one of the best in the world and a beast of a man” demonstrating the high esteem that the Welshman is held in this part of the world. But North has not been laden with the burden of being the Lions’ go-to man by head coach Gatland.
“I don’t think he’s put it on any one individual, he’s put it to us as a squad,” North added. “I guess if you come to New Zealand you know you’re going to get a lot of X-factor coming back at you and I think he’s put it to the squad, and we have to deliver some ourselves.
“We know obviously the challenge is huge and the games are tight. I was touring with Wales last summer and we saw how tough it can be especially in those last 10 minutes. If we can stay strong in our defence and hold them out then sometimes you need that little bit of X-factor to win games or turn games around.”
It was the North X-factor that helped secure the first Test four years ago and he was also on target in the decisive third Test, and even though he had already made quite the impact with Wales in their Six Nations-winning years of 2012 and 2013, it was the Lions where he really made his name on the biggest stage.
Having now scored 30 tries in 76 Tests for Wales, North will no doubt be one of the Lions most potent weapons against the All Blacks, and he is also likely to get a run out against the New Zealand Maori next weekend. He is also one of 15 returning Lions in the 41-man squad that is here in Christchurch, and he has been able to draw on the start of the 2013 tour to ensure that there is not too much negativity taken out of the opening games this time around.
“I was saying the other day it feels scary how quickly it’s come around, four years has gone like that,” he said. “We always knew that the first games were going to be rugby not how we wanted to play, and I think that was evident in 2013 as well. Obviously at this point we’d won two out of two, but the performances weren’t what we were hoping and I think that we’ve got to keep playing, trying combinations out, making sure that we’re ready for what’s coming.”
What did the Lions do for North? It certainly put him on the map in New Zealand, with the Kiwis never one to shy away from the obvious joy that can be taken when rivals Australia get turned over. But did it change his life?
“It certainly got a lot busier,” he said after reflecting on the last four years. “I guess being on the Lions tour is the pinnacle. Playing for your country is huge but the Lions is massive. It really cemented the fact that I could play international rugby and be part of it. To be involved in that sort of thing was huge and certainly after that the pressure rises on players after a Lions tour. That’s why you play the big games though, to be involved in these type of tours.”
North must hit the ground running on Saturday given the Crusaders have not lost a match this season, with the Canterbury side on paper the toughest team that the Lions will face before the Test series. But with Gatland’s favourite weapon back in the Lions ranks, now we’ll see just how close to the All Blacks this squad currently is.
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