Perhaps it’s youthful exuberance or it could simply be the excitement of a whirlwind first six months as a professional rugby player. Either way George North is a refreshing interviewee. Not only does the teenager much prefer keeping busy outdoors to endless rounds of Call of Duty – in fact, he’s only recently bought a games console and that was because a shoulder injury was limiting his ability to be active – but he can also hold an engaging conversation.
The 18-year-old who scored four tries in his first four games for the Scarlets and marked his Wales debut with a brace against world champions South Africa is, understandably, a happy fellow. He’s brimming with energy and is so enthusiastic that the Scarlets medical team were concerned he might try to push himself too hard in his recovery from shoulder surgery at the end of last year.
“Pat (Morgan, the head physiotherapist) said that if anybody else had this injury he wouldn’t be worried but the problem is me; they had to control me!” smiles North. “Every day I’d ask, ‘Can I do running? Can I do contact?’ And the answer was ‘No’. I had to take it slowly. I wanted to push myself but for the first few weeks I couldn’t do anything. It’s a lonely place to be because you just want to get back playing, but the physios have been great and I rehabbed to the max!”
That hard work paid off as he scored a try on his return to action against Edinburgh. And it’s not just in recovering from injuries that North likes to push himself either. He was given a development contract by the Scarlets last summer, his first training session falling the day after he finished his exams at Llandovery College, and was told to expect most of his game time to come in the Principality Premiership. Instead, he impressed so much in pre-season that he was selected for the Scarlets’ first Magners League game of the campaign and scored two tries in the 34-28 defeat by Treviso.
“I played a few games for Llandovery last season and had a few decent performances but nothing above average, and this year I was likely to keep developing my skills at RFC level,” he says. “I knew that but I’m quite stubborn and strong-minded, so I set out to work really hard. I love it when people challenge me and I decided to dig in and keep plugging away.
“Nigel Davies called me into his office, said I’d been training well and that he wanted to look at me in Treviso. It’s a big step up – everything happens so fast and the hits are harder – but because of my size I coped quite well. I enjoy that challenge and having to step up my physicality.”
North proved he was equally adept at stepping up to international rugby. There were rumours that England were interested in North, who was born in Norfolk, but they made no approach and as he’d spent nearly his whole life in North Wales and had gone through the various Welsh age groups he never considered wearing any colour but red.
His wish was granted a little earlier than expected when he was called into the Wales squad for the autumn Internationals and he proved one of his side’s brightest performers in what was ultimately a disappointing campaign. He came off his wing looking for the ball often against South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand, and used his size and speed to great effect when put into space. So what did he make of his two-try debut against the Springboks? “I was pretty happy with it!” he smiles. “When I was called up I thought I’d get three minutes against Fiji but then I saw my name at 14 for the South Africa game and the boys were all giving me the thumbs up. The noise was incredible – I couldn’t hear the calls it was so loud. I remember the noise and the atmosphere – and the two tries!
“I got to play against Bryan Habana, an IRB Player of the Year, and (All Black) Hosea Gear, who’s a great athlete at the top of his game. That’s where I want to be, testing myself against the best players in the world. That’s the constant challenge.”
North is also honest enough to say that he thinks about this year’s World Cup “every day”. He’d love to go to New Zealand in September but knows he has ground to make up in Wales terms after his injury lay-off. There is a lot of expectation being placed on his young shoulders but there’s little chance of him getting caught up in the hype. He’s quick to play down the fact the Welsh press have compared him to Jonah Lomu, for instance, saying: “It’s a great compliment but I’ve not done enough to deserve that. I’ve got more to show and more to give.
“I don’t play rugby for the attention, just for the enjoyment. I love the feeling that I get playing and the freedom of the game; the fact that you can get the ball and the next thing you know you’re 50 metres down the field and no one can touch you. I like the camaraderie and the friendship in a team, and the fact everyone is laughing and smiling.”
It’s going to be a while before that smile is wiped off North’s face.
This article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Rugby World Magazine
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