Given what he’s already achieved on the world stage, it’s easy to forget just how young George North is, writes Features Editor – Sarah Mockford. One reporter fell into this trap at the World Cup, asking the Wales wing what he remembered about the inaugural tournament in 1987 when the men in red registered a third-place finish. It was left to North to point out that he wasn’t born in 1987. Nor was he around for RWC 1991, while South Africa in 1995 is unlikely to have pierced his three-year-old consciousness.
North is poised to have more caps than birthday parties come the end of the RBS 6 Nations. His 15th Test match was the World Cup bronze-medal final defeat by Australia at Eden Park and his clinical finishing – he crossed nine times in his first 12 Tests, including braces against South Africa and England – has seen him tipped to break Wales’ try-scoring record by the holder himself, Shane Williams. But North is still only 19 years of age and won’t leave his teenage years behind until April.
Speaking to North it’s easy to see why his age can slip from people’s minds. He’s far from a surly teenager; he’s mature and holds his end of a conversation with ease. There’s a confidence about him but no sense of arrogance. Like many young achievers, he’s tired of being characterised by his age and would prefer to be recognised simply for his achievements. When it comes to the constant reference to his youth, North admits: “Sometimes it gets annoying; it’s not something to use as an excuse. When I’m in the rugby environment I don’t feel like a 19-year-old, I’m just one of the guys. Some of them might be a lot older than me, but I train, live and work with them. On the pitch I have a job to do and I want to hold my own.”
North jokes that the age gap with older players is only obvious when it comes to musical tastes. Stephen Jones, 34 this month, is still struggling to get to grips with drum and bass apparently.
It’s only a year since North scored two tries against South Africa on his Test debut in Cardiff, earning praise from Bryan Habana. His career has been on an upward trajectory ever since and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. He admits that 12 months ago he would never have contemplated playing in a World Cup and becoming a Wales regular, saying: “It’s been one hell of a year.”
But while the autograph hunters have been out in greater numbers since his return from New Zealand, his Scarlets team-mates won’t let him get beyond his station. “I get a bit of stick being the young one but I give it back as well!” he laughs.
North himself isn’t one to rest on his laurels and realises that there is still more he can add to his game. The past year has shown him what is required of a world-class winger and while he already has many of those attributes – pace, power, footwork – he knows he must broaden his skill-set.
“I’ve learned little things about the trade that I want to take forward and use to improve my game,” he says. “I’ve taken a lot of confidence from the World Cup and think I put in some decent performances, but I’ve got more to prove and there’s more to come from me.
“Something that came out of the World Cup is that the back three have a massive work-rate. I’m looking to improve on that in my game. I want to be more involved, get my hands on the ball more and be a pain in the arse wherever I am. I want to be a threat everyone has to deal with.
“I’m loving the game and every second I’m on the park my enthusiasm is coming through; I just want to be everywhere. I’ve learned a lot from Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny; they’re so consistent and their work-rate is phenomenal. Players around the world like Cory Jane and Bryan Habana have a fantastic work-rate too. It’s a trait the modern winger has to have – to work hard for the whole game.”
In fairness to North, his work-rate is already pretty high. Let’s take a few examples. He was a constant threat to the Fiji defence at the World Cup, breaking left, right and centre to score one try, play a crucial role in three others and pick up the Man of the Match award. In the third-place play-off against Australia, he was still giving his all in the closing minutes as Wales chased nothing but a consolation try – and he did this with blood streaming down his face from a head wound. He is just as dangerous in regional colours, proving the star performer on his Heineken Cup debut, continually crashing through defenders and setting up Ben Morgan’s try in the Scarlets’ win over Castres.
North has put in plenty of work on the mental side of the game too. He has formed a strong relationship with Wales’ mental skills coach Andy McCann, of whom Sam Warburton is also fulsome in his praise, to ensure he’s in the right state of mind before matches and doesn’t become overawed by where he finds himself in world rugby. After all, there’s no point having all the physical skills if your head isn’t in the right place.
“Being the youngest in the squad and not having as much experience as others, I’ve relied a lot on Andy to calm me down and help me chill out. He’s a great guy and has done a lot for me. He’s given me the confidence to back myself and not go into my shell.
“I’ve met him for coffee since we’ve been back and we keep in touch. He works with a lot of the boys and what he does is different for each player. When I’ve been injured he’s good at helping me build my confidence back up. Every morning before a game I ring him too – it’s good just to hear a friendly voice. He’ll just give me little things to remember on the pitch and key points to focus on throughout the game. I’ve done a lot of work with him and I thank him a lot.”
North is hoping Wales will also be thankful for their World Cup campaign as a whole when it comes to the Six Nations. While the tournament ended in disappointment with defeats by France and Australia, they still went further than any other home nation and impressed people the world over with their style of play. Only New Zealand and Australia scored more tries than Wales in the pool stages while in seven matches they conceded only seven tries, proving that both their offensive and defensive games are in good shape. Now they head into the championship with a tight-knit young squad full of confidence.
“We have a great chance in the Six Nations if we come together on the day. There are bits to improve on but they’re little one per centers rather than massive things. We just need to carry the momentum from the World Cup forward. The Wales squad is all performance-based so I know if I’m not performing at the right level I won’t get in.
“We worked so hard that it was horrible to finish on a low note at the World Cup. One kick or one missed tackle can make a massive difference. But we can take a lot from that experience and push forward. We’re very close as a squad and when crap happens we come together and pull through as a squad. We work hard for each other and give everything we’ve got.”
Wales are also sure to benefit from the fact that many of those to impress in New Zealand are developing their playing relationships further at the Scarlets. Nigel Davies has backed Welsh youth for several seasons now and that policy is paying off with seven Scarlets in Wales’ World Cup squad, equal with the Ospreys and more than Cardiff Blues’ contingent. North says playing with the likes of Rhys Priestland, Jonathan Davies and Scott Williams week in, week out can only help his own and Wales’ game.
“I’m enjoying playing with the boys again and it’s nice to be back in the groove. The more we play together, the more comfortable we are with each other and the more we can understand each other’s games.”
With time on the side of a youthful Wales squad, the big question is: just how good can this team be? “It could be awesome,” says North. “We’re playing with confidence, there are a lot of young boys coming through and the potential here is awesome. It’s something I’m excited to be part of.”
Check North scoring two tries on his debut for Wales v South Africa…
This article appeared in the January 2012 issue of Rugby World Magazine.
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