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FEATURE Is it time to acknowledge George North's career and give him some credit?

Is it time to acknowledge George North's career and give him some credit?
9 months ago

Les Williams thought he had seen it all during a lifelong association with Scarlets rugby.

The immensely respected recorder of the club and region’s history had witnessed Phil Bennett in all his twinkle-toed majesty, marvelled at Ray Gravell’s industrial-strength passion and watched JJ Williams deploy the Formula One pace that so often left defenders trailing in his vapour stream.   

He had also delighted in the ethereal skills of a young Barry John, savoured the sumptuous passing of the Kiwi centre Regan King and had a ticket to see Ieuan Evans arrow in for pretty much every one of his 194 tries over 232 games for Llanelli.

All wonderful memories.

But, still, he hasn’t forgotten the first time he laid eyes on George North

It was in the summer of 2010 when the then 18-year-old boy George came into a bar. “I had heard about him but not previously seen him,” recalls Les. “Then this big guy walked into the Thomas Arms in Llanelli and I said to the chap I was with ‘who’s that?’

“’That’s George North,’ he replied.

“I said: ‘I thought he was a back rather than a forward.’

“I couldn’t believe he could play behind the scrum being the size he was. He was massive.”

George North
Few players have burst onto the scene quite like North, who scored two tries on debut against world champions South Africa at 18 (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Fast-forward 13 seasons and North is still going strong.

For a player whose game is based on power, speed and physicality, who has endured more than his fair share of orthopaedic issues over the years, he has proven more durable than many of his detractors might have expected. Plenty were prepared to write him off amid a series of mid-career head knocks, while still more doubted he’d have the resolve to battle back to prominence after missing the 2021 Lions tour with a knee injury that sidelined him for 13 months.

But, like his old Wales team-mate Dan Lydiate, he has kept coming back for more.

That isn’t to say the dark times haven’t tested him, with North admitting to being ‘heartbroken’ after sustaining the bump that ruined his Lions bid of two years ago. But he eventually returned to the front line, just as he recovered from the quadruple facial fracture he suffered playing for the Ospreys against Leicester Tigers last December. As he got used to having two plates in his face to help fix the latter problem, he could have fairly considered himself to be as familiar with pain as pretty much any rugby player around.

When England applied pressure he directed operations with authority and calm. A second watch of the game revealed his effort to be a quiet masterclass in modern midfield play.

His place for this World Cup was never in doubt, though. Indeed, while almost every other Welsh squad centre had a question mark over his name amid the ordinariness of Wales’ final two warm-up matches this summer, North nailed down his spot in early August after he showed officer-class leadership to organise a young Wales backline in the 20-9 win over England in Cardiff.

The rest of the three-quarter line was awash with inexperience that day. Indeed, had the match been played after dark the Welsh Rugby Union might have had to take the precaution of seeking parental approval for those involved to stay out late.

But the 100-cap man wearing the red No. 13 shirt was a reassuring presence all game.

When others missed tackles, he put out the resultant fires with intelligent and committed covering; when young heads dipped even slightly, he quietly encouraged; when England applied pressure he directed operations with authority and calm. A second watch of the game revealed his effort to be a quiet masterclass in modern midfield play.

George North
North used all his experience to steer a young Wales team to victory over England in August (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It is a strange one, though.

After bursting on the scene as a teenager, and starring on the Lions tour of 2013, he has often found plaudits elusive. Trek back to 2019 and Wales’s Six Nations Grand Slam triumph of that year. A respected rugby outlet subsequently produced a list of the top 100 players in the world. Ten Welsh players featured, but not the man who had scored two tries against France in the campaign opener and emerged with much credit from the important win over England.  Seemingly North had been wearing a cloak of invisibility during the four games he played.

But here’s the thing. When he’s in the mood he can pose a threat to any defence in the world.

For evidence, m’lud, there is exhibit A, North’s performance in the opening Test against New Zealand in 2016, when he sent tremors through the All Blacks’ defence virtually every time he touched the ball. Wales made 14 clean breaks on the night, with big George responsible for six of them. At times in the opening half, home defenders didn’t seem to know what to do to stop the 6ft 4in, 17st 2lb Welsh wing. The man directly opposite him, Julian Savea, was hooked on 43 minutes. In that game, North looked like a player who could hurt the opposition not only when opportunities arose but when he wanted to.

Why the relative lack of acclaim, then?

Possibly because over the years he hasn’t consistently dominated games in the way some might have hoped he would.

Some might even argue his rugby skills haven’t caught up with his physical gifts.

But maybe in Wales there has been too much focus on what North can’t do instead of what he can do.

The coach who brought him through into the senior game with the Scarlets, Nigel Davies, remains a huge fan, 15 years after first setting eyes on the strapping lad who had come down from north Wales to try his luck in west Wales.

George then was the size George is now,” he laughs.

“And to be that big at 16 was going some.

George was one of those special talents you see coming along when it’s quite clear the individual in question is going to go far.

Nigel Davies

“His impact in games was massive. He was very much a man amongst boys.

“He did a pre-season at the Scarlets and it was evident early on there was something special there. I remember telling Rob Howley, a Wales coach at the time who came over to watch one of our sessions: ‘This guy will be playing for you before the season’s out.’

“That proved the case.

George was one of those special talents you see coming along when it’s quite clear the individual in question is going to go far.

“Physically he was outstanding. His size, his power, his ability to cover ground quickly and his speed endurance were off the charts.

“Has he delivered on all that potential? In the first few years, he certainly delivered.

“He then had some big injuries, including head knocks which can take some coming back from in terms of confidence.

George North
The winger has had his fair share injuries over his long and illustrious career (Photo by Malcolm Couzens/Getty Images)

“But I remember when I was coaching at Gloucester and he was at Northampton.

“A huge element of our game-plan involved trying to keep George out of the match, because he was so influential. One of our ploys was to kick high on him early so we could take him out before he had momentum. It worked for most of the game, but we kicked badly on him once and he raced clear to score a length-of-the-field try.

“That’s the talent he was.

“But the life of a professional rugby player can be very difficult and unpredictable, with injuries playing a big part in the longevity of players and how far they will go.

George has had some major bumps, but he’s still playing at the top level and he’s still a quality player.

“We’d all like to see him carry a bit more as we remember he did in the first four to five years of his senior career. We all believe there’s a bit more there and we would like to see it, because George has all the attributes and has shown as much in the past.

“Let’s see how he goes in the weeks ahead.

“I have a lot of time for him as a rugby player.

“My thinking is if he hits his straps at this World Cup, he can be a huge force.”

Certainly, it would be a huge lift to Welsh prospects in Pool C if North could hit those aforementioned straps.

On the bike, you have your helmet on and visor down, you don’t have your phone or anything to distract you, so you can just enjoy your time on the ride.

George North

He has been playing Test rugby for close on 13 years, with virtually his entire career spent in the glare that goes with being an elite-level player.

It can take a toll – all those newspaper articles, the interviews, player ratings and below-the-line website comments: the sense that a player is a public property.

Perhaps that’s why North enjoys his private time so much.

In 2020, he spoke to Rugby World about his love for motorbikes, complete with the glorious anonymity that riding one brings.

“It’s the freedom the motorbike gives you,” he said back then. “Putting the helmet on and getting out of the pressure pot is worth its weight in gold. It’s like mountain biking or road cycling, with your helmet and shades on you’re just another person, which is quite nice after 10 years of being shouted at! On the bike, you have your helmet on and visor down, you don’t have your phone or anything to distract you, so you can just enjoy your time on the ride.”

George North
North was a Lion in 2013 and 2017 before a knee injury deprived him of going on the 2021 tour (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images for HSBC)

There is a sense that maybe not that many people know the real George North.

Certainly, the suspicion is, as with Alun Wyn Jones, the individual who can sometimes touch blades with the press is not the same bloke as the one who relaxes with his mates.

Now a player representative, Gareth Maule first came across North as a player for the Scarlets, with Maule wearing the No. 13 jersey when the then teenager made his debut in the early-autumn of 2010. “George,” he says without hesitation, “is a top-class bloke on and off the field.

“I have a lot of respect for him.

“If I ring George North and ask him to do something, it’s done.”

It was the closest thing we’d seen to a Welsh Jonah Lomu.

Maule recalls that in his early days as a player, North was content to let others do the talking. “He was a shy, humble sort of guy, someone who didn’t have a lot to say and was quite quiet on the field.

“But it didn’t take a genius to work out he’d go far.

“When he came into our environment I was pretty much a senior player at the time. George did some work with us and was already on par with some of our top lads in the gym when it came to the backs.

“Seeing him, I said: ‘Flaming heck. Who’s this?’

“It was the closest thing we’d seen to a Welsh Jonah Lomu.

“I remember saying at the time: ‘If this guy can play rugby he’s going to be world class.’

“Lo and behold, he could play and he did end up being seen as world class.”

I think he can be immensely proud of what he’s achieved, and he’s still going. It takes a lot of doing.

Perhaps those who have doubted North should take a closer look at what he has actually achieved. Seven months shy of his 32nd birthday, he has 114 Wales appearances on the board, plus Test caps with the British and Irish Lions. There are also four Six Nations title winners’ medals, with two of those team successes being embellished by Grand Slams. He is also just three tries shy of Brian O’Driscoll’s all-time Six Nations record of 26 touchdowns, while he has played in two World Cup semi-finals.

“His career speaks for itself,” says Maule. “No-one wins a hundred Test caps by accident, nor does anyone play in Tests for the Lions without being good enough.

George has a CV that’s world-class.

“No-one can argue otherwise. He’s not playing for a fourth-rate rugby nation. Over the years he’s played in a position where there have been people vying to knock him off his spot, but he’s held onto the shirt. I think he can be immensely proud of what he’s achieved, and he’s still going. It takes a lot of doing.”

Les Williams has Ieuan Evans and JJ Williams as the wings in his greatest Scarlets XV. North, he says, wasn’t with the west Walians long enough before leaving. “But I liked him as a player and as a person,” he adds. “He would always stop and chat. I saw him after he left the Scarlets, too, and he was the same. I always found him polite and a nice guy to deal with.”

What else is there to say?

A former French prime minister once said: “Everything I know I learned after I was 30.”

On that basis, the George North rugby story still has chapters to be written.

Just maybe, the 2023 World Cup might provide a future biographer with more rich material.

“Who’s to say George won’t dazzle at this tournament?” asks Nigel Davies.

Wales need him to do exactly that.

George North
Even as a teenager North was as strong as any back (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Certainly, in this summer of Welsh Test retirements, Wales are not ready to wave goodbye to the Old Guard member many of us refuse to see as old.

A big World Cup for the Llangefni RFC product would make it harder for him to bask in the anonymity he seems to enjoy. 

But it would be a decent trade-off.

He has given a huge amount to his country over the years, and such effort deserves to be applauded.

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