GE­ORGE NORTH

Gi­ant wing Ge­orge North is back to his best – and tips the Lions to pass the ul­ti­mate test…

Rugby World - - CONTENTS - WORDS OWAIN JONES

There’s a hy­po­thet­i­cal poser of­ten asked that if you knew you were go­ing to live to 55, would you ap­proach life dif­fer­ently? Would you cut loose and live life to the full, or still take a cau­tious ap­proach and plan for the days ahead? You’d for­give many peo­ple for won­der­ing if Ge­orge North

has taken the for­mer ap­proach in a preter­nat­u­ral rugby ca­reer pep­pered with suc­cess.

As well as nu­mer­ous in­di­vid­ual records, in­clud­ing be­ing the first teenager to reach dou­ble fig­ures for Test tries, he has won a Grand Slam, a Six Na­tions, a Premier­ship and a Euro­pean Chal­lenge Cup, as well as play­ing in two World Cups. All ticked off be­fore his 25th birth­day. It sug­gests a man in a hurry.

It’s also a dec­o­rated ca­reer that some felt had run its course af­ter North was forced to take time out fol­low­ing re­peated con­cus­sive episodes, with ex­perts be­ing rolled out to give their ver­dict on whether North should con­tinue play­ing given his his­tory.

The del­uge of doubters grew to such an ex­tent that North’s place in the Wales team, once so as­sured, came un­der threat dur­ing the Six Na­tions, let alone a place in War­ren Gat­land’s Lions party for New Zealand. Was his con­fi­dence ir­re­vo­ca­bly shot and his time un­der the Test-match lens at an end?

Af­ter one par­tic­u­larly in­sipid per­for­mance against Scot­land, where North touched the ball on two oc­ca­sions and seemed dis­in­ter­ested, down-at-heart or po­ten­tially un­fit (af­ter a dead leg against Italy), care­taker coach Rob How­ley was forced to de­fend his charge and told the press that “Ge­orge had been spo­ken to and told his form has to im­prove”, with fleet-footed duo St­eff Evans and Kee­lan Giles wait­ing in the wings, ea­ger to prove their worth.

Redemp­tion came in al­most car­bon-copy fash­ion to 2016’s Six Na­tions, when he hot-stepped around five Scot­land de­fend­ers to score an emo­tion­ally charged try af­ter sim­i­lar prob­lems. This time round – with his Lions place hang­ing in the bal­ance – Ire­land were the op­po­nents.

Af­ter 20 min­utes in a ca­coph­ony of noise at the Prin­ci­pal­ity Sta­dium, Wales were awarded a li­ne­out in­side the Ir­ish half. The ball was whipped off the top by Sam War­bur­ton to Ross Mo­ri­arty, who fed Rhys Webb and, af­ter Scott Wil­liams punched through mid­field, the ball was worked back to Webb, who zipped a 25-me­tre pass off his left hand to Leigh Half­penny. Half­penny weighted his pass to per­fec­tion, mean­ing North took the ball at full tilt just in­side the 22. The next two sec­onds booked North’s ticket to New Zealand.

He stepped off his right foot at speed to wrong-foot Keith Earls and used his power to drive through a Si­mon Zebo tackle and crash over as a cov­er­ing Rob­bie Hen­shaw grasped thin air. No one watch­ing in the sta­dium or from their sofa was left in any doubt what it meant to North, as he clenched his fists and screamed in a mix of ela­tion and re­lief. The doubters would have to wait. Ge­orge wasn’t fin­ished.

Gat­land will have been buoyed to see North re­dis­cov­er­ing his mojo from afar as his con­fi­dence flooded back and North, who has a nat­u­rally sunny dis­po­si­tion, con­curs. “I’m feel­ing pretty good go­ing into the se­ries, I’ve hit a bit of form at the right time.”

The Lions have spe­cial res­o­nance for North. In 2013 he had the mien of an over­sized school­boy who could scarcely be­lieve his luck – this de­spite his scene-steal­ing im­pact in all three Tests. Fast-for­ward four years and speak­ing to him as he pre­pared to leave for New Zealand, North cut an older, wiser air, tak­ing the Lions cir­cus in his stride.

“Let’s just say my life got a bit busier af­ter Aus­tralia,” he quips. “The 2013 tour was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for me and when you play on that sort of stage your pro­file will al­ways be raised. Most im­por­tantly, I was do­ing a job for the team.”

As if you need re­mind­ing, in the first Test in Bris­bane, North ran in one of the great Lions Test tries, tak­ing the ball 70 me­tres out, skip­ping past Wal­laby de­fend­ers and giv­ing Will Ge­nia a lit­tle ‘see ya later’ wave to crash over in the cor­ner.

In the sec­ond Test, who could for­get North throw­ing 6ft 5in, 16st Is­rael Fo­lau non­cha­lantly over his shoul­der in a fire­man’s lift be­fore driv­ing him into a dis­be­liev­ing Wal­laby de­fender in Mel­bourne? In Syd­ney, in the de­cid­ing Test, he ap­plied the coup de grâce, scor­ing the third try af­ter Half­penny, again, worked him into space. The se­ries con­sol­i­dated North as one of the most mar­ketable names in the game, with ‘Izzy Fo­lau back­pack’ memes do­ing the rounds on so­cial me­dia.

Look­ing back, North is un­sure what to make of a mo­ment that has gone down in rugby folk­lore. “I’m

“I’VE HIT A BIT OF FORM. I FEEL GOOD ABOUT THE SE­RIES”

not sure if it was the best de­ci­sion to pick Izzy up but it will stay with me for­ever. If you ask me why I did it I couldn’t tell you, it was to­tally spon­ta­neous.”

In the in­ter­mit­tent years, with raised ex­pec­ta­tions, North has been forced to en­dure the ups and downs of pro­fes­sional life un­der in­tense scrutiny and cul­ti­vate a thicker shell, as crit­i­cism has, at times, got to him. While North’s game has its flaws – he is of­ten tar­geted un­der the high ball and has been found want­ing de­fen­sively – he is still one of the most po­tent match-winners on the planet, al­most im­pos­si­ble to stop from close range, and highly dan­ger­ous when run­ning from deep.

“If you com­pare where I was in 2013 to where I am now, of course I’ve be­come more bat­tled-hard­ened. The more you play, the more ex­pe­ri­ences you gain and you’re forced to toughen up. I half-joked once that I was 23 but felt 33, but I’ll still be bob­bing and weav­ing for a while yet.”

With Test in­génues like Maro Itoje, Kyle Sinck­ler and Ross Mo­ri­arty walk­ing around the camp wide-eyed, does North feel ready to of­fer a pa­ter­nal arm round the shoul­der? “My over­rid­ing emo­tion is just be­ing happy to be in­volved, to be given that op­por­tu­nity again. I cer­tainly won’t be lec­tur­ing any­one, but if any­one needs a word in their ear

I’d be more than happy to try to as­sist.”

He will be con­test­ing a wing spot with Eng­land’s An­thony Wat­son and Jack Now­ell and his old Scar­lets com­padre, Liam Wil­liams. Amid such qual­ity, North con­cedes that be­fore any ex­tra­ne­ous fac­tors, se­cur­ing a Test berth needs to be a pri­or­ity. “First and fore­most, in the warm-up games I’ll need to con­cen­trate on my own form and fight for my place. There are some bril­liant play­ers around me.”

With the New Zealand Su­per Rugby fran­chises crush­ing all be­fore them, North is aware the or­der ahead of them re­mains of the tallest va­ri­ety, yet he is also qui­etly con­fi­dent that the squad has the tools to rock the All Blacks. “It’s a very, very strong squad. The play­ers Gats has picked shows the type of rugby he wants to play and the tone will be set early on. It’s a group of play­ers with speed, skill and phys­i­cal­ity and talk­ing to the boys, they can’t wait to get stuck in.”

He will have emo­tional sup­port in New Zealand, with his dad Dave and mum Jan head­ing out for the Tests and his girl­friend, Becky ( James), the dou­ble Olympic sil­ver medal-win­ning cy­clist, re­turn­ing the favour that North did in Rio.

“New Zealand is the ul­ti­mate place to tour. I went out there with Wales in 2011 for the World Cup and again last year with Wales. What sets them apart is their depth of knowl­edge and the ex­pectancy of the fans, but they’ve al­ways been very wel­com­ing to me and I imag­ine it will be no dif­fer­ent for the Lions. They just can’t get enough of their rugby.”

As for Steve Hansen’s men, he gives due def­er­ence. “The All Blacks aren’t the world’s No 1 for noth­ing. If you look at the skill-set of the squad it’s huge. Ev­ery­one un­der­stands the game and their roles so well. They’re rugby in­tel­lects and they’ll play any which way to make sure they win the se­ries.”

North made a telling im­pact for Wales last sum­mer in the first Test, trou­bling the All Blacks de­fence with his quick feet and power-packed bro­ken-field run­ning be­fore suc­cumb­ing to in­jury in the last throes of the game, and he’s likely to be do­ing his home­work on Waisake Na­holo, Julian Savea, Is­rael Dagg, Nehe Mil­ner-Skud­der and Ben Smith – all are likely to be in the mix for back-three spots.

“What­ever play­ers the coaches pick, they’ve all got a blend of phys­i­cal­ity, com­po­sure un­der the high ball and out-and-out pace. What I’ve found is they have such strength in depth that if you take out one of their stars, another bril­liant young­ster, with dif­fer­ent tricks, will step in. Look at Rieko Ioane, who’s show­ing up well for the Blues.”

So can the Lions do it? Can they win a first se­ries since Car­wyn James’s men gave the All Blacks the rarest of bloody noses 46 years ago?

“I think we can win the se­ries. If we start well in the first Test, main­tain our fo­cus and get a col­lec­tive buy-in, then why on earth not?”

What­ever tran­spires in the next few weeks, we’ll have a lot of fun watch­ing one of life’s early achiev­ers giv­ing it his best shot.

MAIN PIC JOHN COWPLAND/INPHO

Com­pe­ti­tion An­thony Wat­son is vy­ing for a wing spot

Pool player Fun in the wa­ter in 2013

Raw emo­tion Scor­ing that beauty against Ire­land

Cheeky face Af­ter win­ning the se­ries in 2013

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