By David Williams
The joy of George North’s 100th cap landmark for Wales will be lined with sadness at his boyhood club.
The Wales centre will lead his team out against England today, hoping his celebrations for a century of appearances can inspire the delivery of a Six Nations Triple Crown.
But his record-breaking milestone has been put into perspective by the death of a member of his first rugby club.
North played youth rugby at Llangefni in Anglesey growing up and the north Wales side this week lost amateur player Huw Gethin Jones who died from Covid complications aged just 34.
“It’s heartbreaking and I was really, super sad to hear of his passing,” said North.
“It has been tough on the community and tough on the club. It has been great to see the club and community rallying around Huw’s family. I know there is a GoFundMe pag and I am hoping to get a few bits signed by the squad to help out. It’s so sad.”
North has come a long way since his days on Anglesey. He has been one of world rugby’s biggest stars for the last decade since his scintillating two-try Wales debut as an 18-year-old in 2010.
Still only 28, North will make rugby history today when he overtakes Australian captain Michael Hooper as the youngster player to turn out 100 times for their country.
— Clwb Rygbi Llangefni🏉🏴🐗 (@CRLlangefni) February 26, 2021
“To be able to say I played for Wales was incredible, but to say I was in a very rare club of 100 caps is very special,” said North, who has been in fine form for the last three months.
“I remember my first game. It was probably one of my fondest memories. I was fortunate enough to play with some of my heroes I grew up watching in that game that are still in the camp.
“I think I have got a better haircut now! I never thought I would even get one cap for Wales, let alone 100. It has been a long road – ups and downs – but it has been worth every single second.”
North has been revitalised by his move from wing to centre with Wales and he partners the experienced Jonathan Davies in midfield against England.
Wales head coach Wayne Pivac also has Josh Navidi and Josh Adams back to start and there is a new-found confidence to the Dragons after back-to-back wins.
Still, they will have to improve on their performances in their victories over 14-man Ireland and Scotland if they are to trouble Eddie Jones’ men.
Rookie scrum-half Kieran Hardy faces a big game on what will be just his fourth cap.
“I think we’re going all right. There is plenty to work on and I’m sure everyone will have their own opinion,” said North.
— Clwb Rygbi Llangefni🏉🏴🐗 (@CRLlangefni) February 26, 2021
“At the end of the day we’re in a results business and it’s better to be two from two rather than nought from two. There has been a lot of hard work and I’m hoping come Saturday all the hard work will come to fruition and we’ll get the result we want. It’s certainly going to be a decent game.”
North’s try tally for Wales now stands at 42 – only Shane Williams has scored more – while one touchdown this weekend would see him equal Williams’ Welsh Six Nations record of 22.
That kind of longevity has impressed his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, who will earn his 155th Test cap and make his 23rd consecutive appearance against England.
“George is a competitor and an athlete,” said Jones, who holds the world record of 154 Test match appearances for Wales and the British and Irish Lions.
“To share someone’s first cap is pretty special – to share their 100th is as special, if not more.
“It is hard to put into words, but it’s testament to his hard work and the things you don’t see.
“It’s not just the 80 (minutes) or the 9 to 5, but it’s the things people do when they are coming back from injury or facing criticism or going through the mire, and keep going.
“Those are the things you respect as a fellow professional, and George has done them in abundance. To see him leading us out on Saturday will be a special moment for him, his family and for us to be a part of.
Was pretty obvious early doors the big man @George_North would do well. The most athletically gifted player I’ve played with..at near 110kg’s and the ability to change direction at pace like Shane.
Wonderful achievement warning 💯 test caps for @WelshRugbyUnion
Chapeau 😊👊🏼 pic.twitter.com/zJKU6q08A4
— Jamie Roberts (@Jamiehuwroberts) February 27, 2021
“Any professional can keep going through two reasons – selection or desire. George has got the second in abundance, and that leads on to the first.
“I am sure he has got plenty more in there. You see with experience and maturity he has come on, and you see that in his game, but also the influence he can have on the game has continued throughout his career.
“And that’s a real difference, particularly when you go from domestic to international rugby. There are those that can go up the extra gears, if you like, and George is definitely one of those.”
Wales would not only win the Triple Crown if they beat England in Cardiff, it would set them up for a full-scale title assault across remaining fixtures next month against Italy and France.
While they had their difficulties before edging out Ireland and Scotland, despite both opposition teams having a player sent off, Wales ultimately got the job done on each occasion.
England defeated Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup three months ago, but Jones is one of only six survivors from that starting line-up, compared with England’s dozen.
Jones added: “We’ve got a more concentrated squad with smaller numbers and a bit more of a concerted effort on results, as Wayne (Wales head coach Wayne Pivac) has said.
“That’s not to say we weren’t going out not to win in the Autumn Nations Cup, but Wayne has said we are targeting this competition.
“That’s why everyone was blooded in the Autumn Nations Cup – to pick the most competitive squad possible – and I think you are seeing the results of that now.”
Wales: 15-Liam Williams; 14-Louis Rees-Zammit, 13-George North, 12-Jonathan Davies, 11-Josh Adams; 10-Dan Biggar, 9-Kieran Hardy; 1-Wyn Jones, 2-Ken Owens, 3-Tomas Francis, 4-Adam Beard, 5-Alun Wyn Jones (capt), 6-Josh Navidi, 7-Justin Tipuric, 8-Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: 16-Elliot Dee, 17-Rhodri Jones, 18-Leon Brown, 19-Cory Hill, 20-James Botham, 21-Gareth Davies, 22-Callum Sheedy, 23-Willis Halaholo.
England: 15-Elliot Daly; 14-Anthony Watson, 13-Henry Slade, 12-Owen Farrell (capt), 11-Jonny May; 10-George Ford, 9-Ben Youngs; 1-Mako Vunipola, 2-Jamie George, 3-Kyle Sinckler; 4-Maro Itoje, 5-Jonny Hill; 6-Mark Wilson, 7-Tom Curry, 8-Billy Vunipola
Replacements: 16-Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17-Ellis Genge, 18-Will Stuart, 19-Charlie Ewels, 20-George Martin, 21-Ben Earl, 22-Dan Robson, 23-Max Malins