Discover what the Ospreys, Wales and Lions winger gets up to off the pitch
George North on motorbikes and milestones
With his mum away for the weekend, George North – and his older brother Josh – decided it was the ideal opportunity to get a first motorbike. After convincing their dad that it was a great idea, they found a suitable bike in the local classifieds and the two teens were soon riding it up and down the dirt track leading to the family home in Anglesey.
Then Mrs North arrived home early. George spotted her pulling in as he rounded a corner, did a quick U-turn to rush back, but it was too late – she’d seen the bike!
It’s fair to say she wasn’t best pleased, giving father and sons “both barrels” in George’s words. By that point, though, the goal had been achieved: they had their first motorcycle.
Bikes, whether two wheels or four, were a common feature of North’s teenage years. He did a deal with a friend’s dad, who owned a nearby farm: he’d help out during baling season if he could ride motorbikes and quad bikes around his fields. He’d tap into his own dad’s skills from 20-plus years as an RAF groundstaff engineer to revamp old machines.
“I’ve been a petrol head since I can remember,” says 28-year-old North. “Anything loud, noisy and fast always really interested me. We didn’t have a huge amount of money, so we’d buy a banger and Dad would teach me how to fix it up so it was less of a banger!
“I like to know how things work, even if I can’t put it back together! My dad being an engineer and a Yorkshireman, nothing was ever broken – you had to fix it. It’s taking a step back, working out what’s wrong and fixing it.
“I fixed the washing machine recently. It had a broken seal so I thought it would be a straightforward job; it probably would have taken the washing machine guy an hour and it took me the best part of seven hours, but I do try to fix things around the house. If you have a go yourself, you might learn something along the way.”
It was while he was at Northampton Saints that North decided to get another fixer-upper, the tasks of stripping a bike back and rebuilding it a good distraction as he recovered from a long-term knee injury in 2017. It also provided a valuable lesson: don’t buy a bike unseen.
“It was a silly thing to do,” North reflects now. “When I went to pick it up, I sat on it and it was small, I didn’t really fit on it! I still got it to a place where it was really cool, then went on to the next one.
“At that stage in Northampton, I’d played for five or six years non-stop, I’d never really had a break and was always on the go in rugby. I’d worked so hard on rugby, I wanted to do something for myself with my time off.”
More recently he’s been working on a Triumph bike and is particularly proud of the finished result. He pays tribute to the work of Cid Motorcycles in getting to the end product, with brands like Motogadget, Motone, BAAK, Thornton Hundred and Öhlins also helping out. “It’s how to make it look cool. I might suggest certain things and they say, ‘That’s cool but have you thought about this?’ What I like is the transformation.”
Rugby limits how often he can get out for a weekend ride – he’s desperate to do the North Coast 500 route in Scotland when time allows – but he has helped set up a motorcycle club with a few fellow aficionados.
Baffle Culture was founded by Andrew Salter, the Glamorgan cricketer, and Sam Daymond, with others like North also coming on board. What started as a way to connect people who like to ride has grown into a whole brand – there’s merchandise! – and even a venue.
Situated in Goytre, which is about 15 minutes from Abergavenny, Baffle Haus is a place motorcyclists can meet, socialise, have a coffee (North has the necessary food hygiene certificate to play barista) and then head off to ride in the Black Mountains, Brecon Beacons, Cotswolds…
They recently staged an event where people could test-ride Royal Enfield bikes and hope to hold more when Covid restrictions allow. So could this turn into a career post-rugby?
“I’m very fortunate that I’ve never really worked a day in my life so far because I do what I love for a living. If I could do that in the next chapter of my career, I’d be a very happy boy! In a perfect world that would be amazing, but we’ll have to see. It’s already grown massively but we’re all full-time (in other jobs) at the moment.”
Regardless of whether Baffle Culture turns into a successful business venture, North clearly enjoys the opportunity to socialise outside of rugby, to talk motorbikes rather than matches. He also appreciates the anonymity of his chosen hobby.
“It’s the freedom the motorbike gives you,” he says. “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 ten 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.
“For me, I can’t switch on unless I completely switch off. You need that time away from rugby, then when I go to work I give it everything, whereas if I take work home it can drag on. To get the best out of me in work, I need to switch off completely.”
Lockdown provided a break from the mental and physical strains of pro rugby, and it also allowed him to spend quality time with wife Becky and newborn son Jac. It’s obvious he’s absolutely loving fatherhood as he peppers the conversation with words like “amazing” and “incredible” when talk turns to Jac.
Rugby is firmly back on the agenda now, though. Last season was hugely disappointing for the Ospreys – the region failed to win a single pool game in the Champions Cup last season and notched only two victories in a 15-match Guinness Pro14 campaign – while there has been plenty of turmoil off the pitch too with coaches coming and going.
Yet North is positive about what lies ahead, with Toby Booth coming in as head coach over the summer and former Clermont fly-half Brock James also joining the back-room team as attack coach.
“The last few seasons have been tough and it’s been tough to get consistency because there’s been a lot of change, a lot of movement happening. Toby has been in for a couple of months, he works the boys hard and we’ve responded to that well.
“Toby has knowledge and wisdom. His messages have been clear in how he wants us to play and how we’ll go about it, going back to the legacy of the Ospreys, winning in the Heineken Cup and Celtic League. We want to get back to when the Ospreys were invincible pretty much. There’s a good vibe in camp.”
It’s similar with Wales. This year has been a new experience for North, who had played all his international rugby previously under Warren Gatland. Even when he toured with the British & Irish Lions, Gatland was the top man. Now there’s a different Kiwi in charge and he has enjoyed Wayne Pivac’s approach.
“Wayne has been brilliant with me. All I’d ever known was Warren before, so it’s been like a whole new day of school for me. Wayne and the new coaching staff haven’t had a huge amount of time to implement stuff, but there were definite glimpses of it in Six Nations, how the game we want to play is evolving. It takes a bit of time to learn that, especially the speed that the game is.”
North started Wales’ four Six Nations matches pre-Covid and their ‘friendly’ fixture against France last month, but wasn’t involved in the final championship match against Scotland. Still, he came off the bench in the opening Autumn Nations Cup fixture against Ireland and celebrated a major milestone in Dublin: becoming a Test centurion. And the youngest one at that.
Australia captain Michael Hooper became the first 28-year-old to win 100 caps when facing New Zealand in the Bledisloe Cup last month, beating George Smith and Sam Whitelock, who were both 29 when hitting three figures.
Yet North is six months younger than Hooper and broke the Wallaby’s record by more than 100 days when coming on as a replacement midway through the second half against Ireland. He now has 100 caps, with 97 for Wales and three for the Lions, so should he play in all the Autumn Nations Cup games he would also become only the sixth man to win 100 caps for Wales. It would be a significant achievement.
“When I was 16 and left home to go to Llandovery College to give rugby a go, I’d have ripped your arm off for one cap and gone home with my head held high.
“Playing for your country any time is amazing and to be able to get to 100 is a dream for me. Not many players get to that and no one can ever take that away from you. That’s something I’d take pride in as not many people do that. It would be amazing to get 100 Wales Test caps.”
Whether running onto the rugby pitch or jumping onto his motorcycle, North is certainly enjoying the ride.
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This article originally appeared in the November 2020 edition of Rugby World magazine.
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