Four years ago, George North became a global household name, thanks to his heroics for the British and Irish Lions in their series against Australia, which the tourists won 2-1.
Before the trip Down Under the Welshman, then 21, was already heralded as a stellar rugby union talent in the northern hemisphere, but after scoring the best try of the campaign in the first Test, and then using the Wallabies’ colossal full-back Israel Folau as a rucksack in the second, his reputation as one of the most exciting players in the world was confirmed.
There was little surprise on Wednesday, then, when the Northampton Saints winger was selected in Warren Gatland’s 41-man Lions squad for this summer’s tour to New Zealand, which North – an ambassador for grooming experts Gillette – says will be the toughest challenge of his career.
Here the 25-year-old talks exclusively to The Gentleman’s Journal about how he and his fellow Lions will prepare for their formidable task: beating the All Blacks, the reigning Rugby World Cup champions and No1 ranked team on the planet, on their own soil.
On their game plan
There are just three weeks between the Lions’ first tour fixture, on June 3 against the Provincial Union Team in Whangarei, and the first Test versus the All Blacks, on June 24 in Auckland, so the players need to get with the programme, pronto. “Firstly, [head coach] Warren Gatland needs to paint his vision for the boys,” says North, “and we need to know how he intends to play against New Zealand. Once we have been told the game plan, whatever it is, then we can start to prepare properly – individually and as a squad – but the boys must buy in to that 100 per cent, and give it their all, because there is really not much time to play with. And there can be no straying off message, because the All Blacks will punish any error.”
On the value of talking
If we are to be successful the biggest thing is to communicate as well as possible
Every second counts for Gatland and his Lions squad in their quest to win a series in New Zealand for only the second time in 129 years (the last was in 1971), and with players from all four Home Nations countries thrust together it is critical to bury grudges and patriotism, according to North. “It will be flat-out intensive once we land,” he continues, “and if we are to be successful the biggest thing is to communicate as well as possible. It might sound simple, but it’s important to learn to talk and understand one another – what players like or do, on and on the pitch – despite where you come from, for the sake of the team.”
On raising their game
In the red of Wales North has played New Zealand thrice, and been on the losing side all three times. Further, he has failed to score against the All Blacks. So how does he intend to improve that record? “It’s hard,” he starts. “They have incredible players, and the quality and strength in depth is unbelievable. The way New Zealand play rugby forces the best out of all of their players – the ethos and culture they have in camp is brilliant. Knowing that you can quickly lose your place in the side makes everyone work extra hard, all the time. We need to match that.”
On his pre-game ritual
I try to be as focused but as relaxed as I can be
Every player has their pre-game rituals and superstitions, and North insists that he will not be changing his own routine before entering the fray versus the All Blacks. He explains: “Since school, from the age of 15, I always put on my left sock, and then my right sock; that’s followed by my left boot, then my right. I then pull my left sock up, my right sock up, and lace up my left boot and finally my right boot. I try to be as focused but as relaxed as I can be, and my old order helps me to mentally prepare as best I can.”
On their biggest challenge
“The All Blacks are an amazing team,” says the 25-year-old North, “they are world champions, and our task is massive. So as players we have to focus on our preparation; it is hugely important. I believe if we get that right I’m sure we can go there and cause an upset.”
Images courtesy of Gillette.