When Wales belatedly ended their 2020 Six Nations campaign against Scotland in Llanelli last October, George North was a spectator, lost in his thoughts as he aimlessly kicked a ball around on the field when the teams returned to the dressing rooms after the warm-up. The wing had been dropped from the matchday 23 for the first time in his nine-year international career as he approached 100 caps for his country, and what made the blow worse was that his head coach Wayne Pivac said it had been an easy decision to make.
As it was. The player who had scored two tries in his international debut against South Africa in 2010, whose power to get through tacklers as well as the pace to get around them made him a central figure in Warren Gatland’s team, had drifted out to the margins, involved infrequently and prone to mistakes. Doubt had replaced certainty and there was a question over whether a series of head injuries had taken their toll.
He was restored to the starting line-up for the end of the Autumn Nations Cup in the battle of the also-rans against Italy, partnering Jonathan Davies in the centre and scoring a try, but it was when he returned to the Ospreys that the old North re-emerged. If the 28-year old, who will become the youngest player to reach a century of international caps when Wales face England on Saturday, helps them maintain their winning start to the campaign, then an Englishman – Toby Booth – will bear some of the responsibility.
The region’s head coach, who joined last summer, sat down with the Norfolk-born North before the start of the European campaign. “He was disappointed and it was about getting him enjoying being George again,” said Booth, who arrived in Swansea via London Irish, Bath and Harlequins. “He was frustrated at not playing as well as he would have liked. He found himself, probably for the first time in his career, out of form. He did not know what to do.
“George is a player who responds well to a lot of positivity and we helped prepare him psychologically. It was about pressing the reset button mentally and getting back to what he could control. He had come back from various stop-start injuries and then had a red card. We spent some time talking, focusing on where he could influence a game and how he could express himself, reminding him always what a good player he was.”
The response was immediate. North helped the Ospreys to come from behind to beat Worcester at Sixways in the European Challenge Cup, scoring a try few others could have done as he flummoxed three defenders on his way to the line having already made an impact on the game. “It was more a reinforcement than a rebirth,” said Booth. “Being new here, it was important for me to build a relationship with him and help him find the best version of himself. Wales gave him feedback after the autumn which I will not reveal, but to me it was about stressing what he could do and how important he was to the team. The upshot was that he went back to scoring tries he had no right to. He is George again.”
North was chosen in the centre for Wales’s opening Six Nations match against Ireland at the start of the month. A player in the Gatland era who was used primarily for his size as part of a gameplan that involved physical domination is now being coaxed to reveal his skills and as well as a try when he attacked the outside shoulder of his marker and bet him for pace, he deftly off-loaded out of the back of his right hand and helped create his side’s second try by receiving the ball and passing almost in one movement. A foot injury ruled him out of the encounter with Scotland the following week.
“You want your best players on the pitch because they make a difference,” said Booth. “Margins at the top are tight and players like George turn matches. He was an experienced player going through something for the first time and it required an individual approach.” Had the concussions affected his performance on a sub-conscious level? “I understand the question, but as a player you know the physical side of performance. It is your mind that gets you there. As a player, you want to play the next game if you are going well and, if not, to right the wrongs. You just have to be careful it does not become a vicious circle.”
Both North and Davies, who was also born in England, are playing out of position against England, the former a converted wing and the latter a 13 by preference and someone who has mastered the defensive side of the position. Wales’s two victories this year, both against sides who were reduced to 14 men, were based on defence and an ability to turn visits to the opposition 22 into tries.
“I do not see George’s future here in the centre, but it depends on the balance of your team,” said Booth. “Having his X factor on the edge is important for us while Wales want to use his talent in a different way. What you are talking about is a world-class player who has years left in him and that’s what we told George.”