Dove Men

The Big Interview: George North talks Louis Rees-Zammit, the 2020 Championship and honeymoons

It is ten years since George North burst onto the scene, his blistering pace and raw power burning South Africa for two tries in an explosive debut, as he became the joint-third youngest player in history to represent Wales.

It is ten years since George North burst onto the scene, his blistering pace and raw power burning South Africa for two tries in an explosive debut, as he became the joint-third youngest player in history to represent Wales.

Those who saw it either live or on TV were left in no doubt the 6ft 4in Ospreys winger would be an elite force for years to come.

Since then he has won two Grand Slams, a further Championship title and toured twice with the British & Irish Lions – heights new Welsh talent such as Louis Rees-Zammit can only aspire to reach.

North dazzled then and is still dazzling now at 27. With 19, he is the fourth highest try-scorer in Championship history, seven behind Brian O’Driscoll’s 26. Breaking that record is a real possibility.

But things have changed ahead of the 2020 Guinness Six Nations. Warren Gatland, the man at the tiller for 12 years, has gone.

Wayne Pivac, a former New Zealand policeman who preaches an easy-on-the-eye brand of attacking rugby, is in. As we reach the 2020 Championship, Wales are heading into the unknown.

One of Pivac’s first eye-catching moves is to call up Rees-Zammit, the 18-year-old Gloucester winger who has ten tries in 11 games, sits second in Premiership scoring charts, and was named the player of the month for December. His impact has been as productive as it has sudden.

He is yet to play for Wales but already comparisons are being made between he and North, who is perhaps the last teenager to excite quite like this.

And with Italy now just over a week away from landing in Cardiff, memories of South Africa’s trip in 2010 are increasingly sharp.

There is no certainty Rees-Zammit will see the field. Indeed, he may be held out of the Championship entirely.

He does have the likes of North, Josh Adams, Jonah Holmes and Johnny McNicholl to compete with, while an ankle injury will have slowed him.

Yet he has a shot and North – a Dove Men Care (DMC) Ambassador – acknowledges there is a striking parallel between their explosive impacts.

“It is actually ten years since I came through and it’s scary! But I know how he feels. He’s excited and it’s brilliant that he’s here,” he said.

“I know what it is like to be coming through like that. I have been there myself and it is brilliant to see him taking his chances and he deserves to be in the squad now.

“I think he is a great finisher and that stands out. He’s scoring a lot of tries and taking his chances. I think the way Gloucester play is brilliant for him, too. They see a lot of the ball, so he is getting a lot of touches and that creates new opportunities.

“We have five new boys coming in and that shows you the strength we have in depth. They are pretty fresh faces but then we have the baulk of the squad from the World Cup too.”

This is Wales’ first Championship without Gatland since 2007, although Rob Howley was caretaker in 2013 and 2017 while Gatland shifted his focus to coaching the Lions.

North was just 14 then. Now, he’s 27, married and has a baby on the way – highlighting just how big a transition this is.

“The first session was always going to be like your first day at a new school or your first day with a new teacher. Everyone is full of energy and wants put their imprint on the coaches,” North added.

“We also have a lot of new boys coming in and they will want to put their stamp on it. I think it will be an interesting first couple of weeks as everyone tries to find their groove.

“When it comes to the Championship, everyone will be chomping at the bit to get going.”

To add to the intrigue, Wales have a target on their backs. England may have reached the World Cup final in November and sit third in the world rankings, a place above Wales, but Wales are the defending Grand Slam champions.

They have not lost a Championship match since Round 3 two years ago when Ireland, en route to a Grand Slam of their own, won 37-27 in Dublin.

There may be five uncapped players this year but Wales are a battle-hardened team, and this year they can count on the return of Taulupe Faletau and Rhys Webb.

Where North fits in will be fascinating. Since returning from injury after the World Cup, he has played at outside centre for club side Ospreys and could line up in midfield for his country as they battle an injury crisis.

“For me it’s another string to my bow. If needed I’ll play anywhere,” he added.

“I am back and raring to go. I have played a couple of games for Ospreys but I feel good. It is always tough when you are injured but it has been a long six months.

“It was non-stop before and during the World Cup so it is a bit of a blessing in disguise to have been out for a little bit. You don’t want to be injured but I managed to get a honeymoon in so that kept my wife happy.

“I was straight back to it with the rehab after but we got away to Dubai for four days and then the Maldives for six. I came back as pale as I left because I don’t tan very well!”

With the Championship a week away, North is more concerned with how he looks on the pitch.