THE BLOG

George North Prepares To Power Wales And Lions To Glory

01/02/2017 16:45 GMT | Updated 01/02/2017 16:45 GMT
Paul Childs / Reuters

A Six Nations Championship on the eve of a British and Irish Lions campaign always fizzes with more intensity than usual. Players push themselves to the very limit of their athletic abilities in a bid to impress the selectors and gain a coveted place on the aeroplane for a tour which, for most, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and the pinnacle of their rugby career.

This coming summer the Lions face arguably their toughest task yet, as they tackle reigning back-to-back World Cup winners New Zealand on their home turf. However, the bigger the challenge, the greater the desire to be a part of it - so buckle up, because we can expect some sensational individual performances the 2017 Six Nations, which kicks off this weekend.

The tour party's head coach, Warren Gatland, has taken a sabbatical from his Wales role to ensure his choices are precise and squad preparation is the best it can be. Having already drawn up a long list of prospective tourists, with the help of Steve Borthwick and Rob Howley, his assistants, he will be fully focused on the Six Nations action, monitoring performances in granular detail and keeping a watch for possible 'flyers', or wildcard picks.

Reigning champions and bookmakers' top choice England begin their defence at Twickenham on Saturday against France, while Ireland - second favourites - travel to Scotland. On Sunday all eyes will be on Wales, who start their championship in Rome, with one player, in particular, seeking to prove his fitness and form.

George North is on course to win his 66th Test cap against Italy - which, despite some injury setbacks, is an incredible achievement, considering he is still only 24.

The 6ft 4ft and 17st winger, all lean muscle and explosive power, burst on to the international scene in 2010, and earned his initial call up after only six appearances for Scarlets. On his debut versus then-reigning world champions South Africa, aged 18 years and 214 days, he became Wales' youngest try scorer, and crossed for a brace in the match at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, which his side lost 29-25.

In all the King's Lynn-born North, who moved to Anglesey in north Wales - where his Welsh mother, Jan, hails from - aged two, has scored 27 tries for his country, in 65 Tests. And Gatland, having been in charge of Wales for a decade, knows him better than most. He will be crossing his fingers that the Northampton Saints winger has a consistent and injury-free Six Nations so he can be a star in New Zealand for the Lions, as he was four years ago in Australia, when the tourists won their first series in 16 years, since bettering South Africa in 1997.

North, the subject of a new film released on Wednesday by Gillette, who are one of the main sponsors of the Lions tour to New Zealand, has twice won the Six Nations: in 2012, when the team achieved a 'Grand Slam'; and a year later, which was the last time Howley took control as Wales' caretaker coach, with Gatland preparing for the Lions tour Down Under later that summer.

On the Lions tour to Australia North started all three Tests, and scored twice. The tourists claimed first blood in Brisbane, at the Suncorp Stadium, and his try proved vital in the 23-21 win. He also dotted down in the series-deciding clash at Sydney's ANZ Stadium, where his side romped to a sensational 41-16 victory.

Gillette's short but emotive film, entitled 'The Honest Player', shows North stretching every sinew in training and features a voiceover taken from an iconic Jim Telfer speech, from when the Scot was forwards coach on the successful 1997 Lions tour to South Africa. In it the former No8, who won 22 caps for his country and eight for the Lions, highlights the importance of preparation and precision.

In the stirring address Telfer, who turns 77 next month, says: "There's two kinds of rugby players, boys; there's honest ones, and there's the rest. The honest player gets up in the morning and looks himself in the mirror, and sets his standard, sets his stall out, and says: 'I'm going to get better, I'm going to get better, I'm going to get better.'

"He doesn't complain ... and only at the end of the day will the man who has stayed on his feet win the final battle."

Lions fans, and Gatland especially, will be hoping more than anything that North - an unquestionably honest and immensely talented player - performs to his usual high standards in this extra-intense Six Nations Championship. If he does, he will be a shoo-in for Lions selection for the rugby war against the mighty All Blacks this summer.