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