Warren Gatland reveals talks with George North to 'keep door open' for Wales return

Gatland said he spoke to North about 'leaving the door open' on his Wales career
Gatland said he spoke to North about 'leaving the door open' on his Wales career -Credit:Chris Fairweather/Huw Evans Agency

Warren Gatland has revealed he spoke with George North about leaving the door open on his international career after the Wales star announced his retirement from Test rugby.

The centre bowed out from Wales duty at the end of the Six Nations, suffering an achilles injury in the dying moments of his 121st and final Test match against Italy. That injury also brought his Opsreys career to an end, with North joining French second division side Provence ahead of next season.

But while the 31-year-old announced that it was the "right time to step away" from the international game, Gatland says he had a conversation with him over a potential return as the coach looks to build his squad towards the 2027 Rugby World Cup.

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Appearing on the Rugby Pod with Jim Hamilton and Dan Biggar, the Wales boss gave an insight into how he was approaching his selection calls for this summer's tour of Australia and beyond. While he spoke of working hard to bring through a new generation of talented youngsters, he added that he was mindful of the experienced players he still had at his disposal and the balancing act he must now perfect.

Asked by Biggar if he was planning to name a similarly youthful squad to the one he announced for this year's Six Nations, or if he was prepared to bring back experienced heads including Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe, Gatland replied: "Yeah, it will be fairly similar.

"I have spoken to Liam and he’s had one season out in Japan and probably another season. But I think he's still one of those players that, while he’s had issues with injuries in the last few years and not been fit, having that experience can make a difference to us. But we’re the smallest Tier One nation in terms of numbers and stuff, so how do you then think about cycles?

"For us, everything's built towards World Cups, even though the Six Nations is a really important competition and you want to do well in that. We've decided that we want to pick some youngsters that we think we can develop over the next couple of years. We won't get all those decisions right, but we do see some talented guys at the moment and we've seen some growth in them.

"But we're also mindful of the fact that there are players like Liam and Gareth Anscombe," he added. "I did have a conversation with George North and try to leave the door open to him, depending on what happens in France. I think he would have loved the opportunity to stay in Wales if there was something on the table for him, but unfortunately there wasn't. He's got to recover from his Achilles injury. So it's that balance between that experience, but also realising that we've got to develop some youngsters."

After the retirements of the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny, North was by far the most experienced player in Gatland's recent Six Nations squad, with over 40 caps more than the second-most capped member, Gareth Davies. And with six players making their debut over the course of the tournament, Gatland admitted he had a "lot of work to do" to put together a squad experienced enough to win a World Cup.

"I think for me when I look at World Cup cycles, it’s about how do you get to a World Cup with a squad with an average age of their late 20s, reaching 29, 30 years old," he said. "That’s a number that wins World Cups and you want to hopefully get a squad that is averaging between 40 and 60 caps, so you've had that experience and time together.

"The Six Nations just gone, we had 15 players in the squad who had less than ten caps and five of them [excluding late call-up Harri O'Connor] were new caps, so that's nearly half the squad.

"We've got a lot of work to do over the next few years in terms of bringing those players on, but also understanding that if some of those experienced players are available to us, and if they can get to the next World Cup, then we will get them involved."