George North

George North of Wales celebrates scoring in Paris. Pic: Getty Images.

George North . . . The Long Road Back To Another World Cup With Wales After 12-Year Journey

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By David Williams

George North was barely out of short trousers when he made his World Cup debut as a teenager against South Africa in New Zealand.

That was a dozen years ago, and the child prodigy has grown into one of the greatest players of his generation, underlined by two Grand Slams, two more Six Nations titles, two World Cup semi-finals, two tours with the British & Irish Lions and 44 tries in 113 games for Wales and two more in Lions Tests.

Now the boot is on the other foot. He was one of the most experienced players among the 46 strong squad that this weekend returns from two weeks spent at altitude in the quaint and quiet Swiss ski resort of Fiesch. A flying, almost unstoppable wing in his early career, nowadays he is captain of the defence as an ultra-reliable centre.

George North George North of Wales is held by Beauden Barrett. Pic: Getty Images.

Wherever he gets picked, his desire to play for Wales at the more mature age of 31 is as strong now as it ever has been. The fact he was prepared to put himself through the agony of another lung-busintg fortnight in Fiesch – he did the same ahead of the 2015 and 2019 tournaments – is proof enough he has the appetite for more, much more in his career.

“After some of the sessions out there I don’t know how I feel about carrying on,” he admitted. “As I look back on my career, my first thought is hasn’t the time gone fast.

“There was a young group of us coming through in 2011 and now there is only a handful of us left. If you’d have told me back in 2011 that I’d be able to go to four World Cups, I’d probably have laughed at you. The honour of representing your country at any time is huge, but it is truly massive at a World Cup.

“Now I’m excited by the prospect of fighting for a jersey to go to another tournament. There is a lot of young talent coming through and that means every day you have to graft and fight, which isn’t easy.

“Is it any harder now than 12 years ago? It’s relative to where the game has gone – higher ball in play time, very limited opportunities off set-pieces and having to take your chances when they come along – but the conditioning has ramped up.

“We haven’t exactly gone back to ‘default Gats’, but we’re certainly back in a place where there are no apologies from him for working us hard. Hard work and emptying out every day is the minimum standard if you want fight for a jersey.

“Whether it is someone a little bit older – I’m not putting myself in that bracket, but I’m a little bit closer to it – or one of the younger boys bidding for a first World Cup, every day is important. We’ve only got three weeks to our first international, so you have to be on the money every day.”

North is hoping the benefits of living at altitude are going to kick for everyone in the Welsh squsd as they prepare for three games in August before they head into the World Cup clashes with Fiji, Portugal, Austrlaia and Georgia.

Everyone suffered at the start living at 2,200m – “I was blowing just going to the toilet in the hotel to begin with” – but those diffiucluties soon eased. Through his bedroom window North could see, on a good day, the Matterhorn (4,478m) before he took the cable car gondola down 1,200m to the training field.

The sacrifices he is making now are different to those made by the “young and naïve” teenager in 2011. Now he has a wife, the former Olympic silver cycling medalist Beccy James, and two young boys Jac and Tomi. He is also invovled in a burgeoning chain of coffee shops – Ground in Pontcanna and Cowbridge and Baffle Culture in Monmouthshire – as he casts one eye on his future.

“When it was just me and Becky, it was brilliant. Now we have two boys and that has brought a new pressure. Dad has to provide,” added North.

“With Ground and Baffle House I’m able to look at and plan for the future, because I have to. I want to go out on my terms rather than have anyone else tell me it’s time for me to go.

“What the future holds, I don’t know. For the moment, I just have to give everything to World Cup preparation. If I hadn’t been all in in Fiesch, then I’d have been nowhere. You have to have an eye on the future in this game, especially after what we’ve seen recently.”

Long standing teammates Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Rhys Webb all turned their backs on anotehr World Cup campaign to concentrate on securing the best deals at their repsective clubs. North wants to keep on going.

So, is there another World Cup in him after this one? “It depends who you speak to. You’ll have to ask Gats that question,” he says.

“I’ve got a last season with the Ospreys, and I’ll review things after this World Cup. I’m still enjoying my rugby, I’m still competing, and I still want to fight physically and mentally. So, I can’t see why not.”

For now, though, he is happy to take on the role that others filled when he was coming through the ranks in guiding the next crop of youngsters through the ranks.

“I got caught in a weird time in rugby. I came in on the back end of ‘old school’ rugby with the likes of Andy Powell and Mike Phillips, and then the new age of academy products coming through. I feel as though I’ve been playing through the best bit of it,” he added.

“When I came through, I had Shane Williams, Stephen Jones and Jamie Roberts to look after me, Gethin Jenkins as well. They showed me what international rugby was all about, and what you have to give to be involved.

“Respect is earned and I felt that if I was able to show boys of that calibre, who I looked up to for years, that I was willing to as much or more than them to scrap to play next to them, then it would reflect in my performances.

“You could argue that from 2011 we had a pretty successful time and we now have an amazing group of boys coming through – Mason Grady, Max Llewellyn, Joe Roberts, Keiron Williams to mention a few in the midfield.

“I see myself in them a little bit. I was young and a bit naive to the world, just excited to play rugby and be involved.

“But there are some fundamentals that you have to have and that need to be instilled in people – communication under pressure, the ability to step up and make decisions and to help others around you.

“If we can give these young boys the confidence they need, allow them to play freely and put some older heads around them, then to me there are echoes of what we had in 2011.

“My role has definitely changed to more that of a leader. For many years, too many, I was always the young one. I can’t say that now at the ripe old age of 31.

“Now it is a case of me saying this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re doing it, now come with me. I got here through the help of others, by being shown the way and by being dragged up to the required standard.

“You have to question young players because if you make them think, then they are learning. If I can do that with the youngsters, then I hope I can help them to improve.”

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