Wales centre North prepares for fourth World Cup

wales-centre-north-prepares-for-fourth-world-cup
George North prepares for his fourth World Cup
George North prepares for his fourth World Cup
Venue: Stade de Bordeaux, Bordeaux Date: Sunday, 10 Sept Kick-off: 20:00 BST
Coverage: Live BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app.

George North will become part of an exclusive club when he starts his fourth World Cup by running out against Fiji in Bordeaux on Sunday.

North, 31, will become the fifth Welshman to achieve the accolade after Gareth Thomas, Stephen Jones, Gethin Jenkins and Alun Wyn Jones.

“I hoped I’d get to one,” said North.

“To represent your country is huge and to play at a World Cup is wicked. I’m still competing and find myself at four.”

North started his World Cup career in New Zealand in 2011 as a teenager, when he was the youngest player in a squad that lost in the semi-finals against France.

He was also in the group that reached the quarter-finals in 2015 before they were knocked out by South Africa at Twickenham.

Four years later Wales and North suffered more last-four heartache when the Springboks again defeated them, this time in Japan.

North’s role has evolved after he featured mostly at wing in those three previous global tournaments. He has shifted to centre during the last four years and will make his 17th World Cup appearance in Bordeaux on Sunday.

“It’s only just really hit me,” said North.

“I guess it’s just a kudos to myself and shows all the work you put in is worth it to get to a fourth. I’m still enjoying it.

“Since we started training at the end of May, it felt like a lifetime away, especially with all the running we’ve done. But now we’re here, we play Sunday, and it’s real now.”

George North makes his World Cup debut against South Africa in 2011
George North made his World Cup debut against South Africa in 2011

Demanding training camps have been a familiar theme during the preparations over the last 12 years and this time head coach Warren Gatland put his squad through their paces in Switzerland and Turkey.

“Some of the sessions in Switzerland were brutal, probably some of the hardest I have ever done,” said North.

“The same in Turkey. We came off the paddock and we had knocked lumps out of each other for 40-odd minutes in 46 degrees.

“It’s all about Gats’ way of building that resilience, building that robustness into the squad because that is exactly what you need when it comes to these group stages and the knockout rugby kind of vibe.”

So can this Wales class of 2023 reach the knockout stages? The squad does not have the experience of the retired Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric plus the injured Ken Owens, with 10 players making their World Cup debuts this weekend.

“It’s got a bit of a 2011 feel about it, with a big movement of players before the tournament and a young crop coming through with a few senior boys still directing the ship,” said North.

“The vibe has been good. For a lot of the boys it’s their first World Cup so they’re going into the unknown and they’re excited.”

George North is handed his 2015 World Cup cap by the then HRH Duke of Cambridge
George North is handed his 2015 World Cup cap by HRH Prince of Wales

Fiji will present a familiar challenge for North, with the Ospreys back having faced them in the last three World Cups.

Wales won those three matches but Fiji have provided tough tests in the last two tournaments and arrive at this competition in impressive form.

Fiji are the highest-ranked side in Pool C in seventh, above Wales and Australia, as result of a successful World Cup build-up that culminated with a first victory over England at Twickenham last month.

“They pose a big physical test,” said North.

“Having watched them in the lead-up to the World Cup, they are a different team altogether now. They still have that flair everyone associates with them, wanting to play, run, offload and keep the game alive.

“But the set-piece control they have now and ability to force teams’ hands with their dominance gives them the whole package also.

“Our preparation has been getting ready for that physical battle, defensively having to step up for what is the unpredictability and exciting rugby they bring.

“It is just going back to what we know works for us, backing ourselves, trusting the ability and conditioning we’ve done and producing a 80-minute performance.”

George North scores a World Cup try against Georgie in Wales' opening match of the 2019 World Cup in Japan
George North scores a try against Georgia in Wales’ opening match of the 2019 World Cup in Japan

This has been dubbed a pivotal opening fixture, with further group games against Portugal, Australia and Georgia to come.

“The cliche would be to underplay it but, we need to start with a win on Sunday, pure and simple,” said North.

“The way our group is structured, it helps us a little bit in terms of where the teams are playing and when we’re playing them.

“But any team in this World Cup, if you ask them, the first game has to be your first win and that sets the tone for the camp.

“It sets the atmosphere and it sets everything up for what is a tough two months, hopefully. So Sunday’s going to be huge for us to set our tone for the World Cup.”

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