The image of Wales and Ospreys outside centre George North pounding the turf of the Yokohama Stadium in anger during the semi-final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup is one that is hard to erase for many Welsh fans.
After winning all their group games, including a victory over World Cup holders Australia and a quarter-final defeat of France, Wales and George North, in particular, were on a roll.
The passion, determination and desire were never lacking – but, just like North, Wales’ fans left Japan cursing their luck. One game away from their first ever World Cup final and a potential showdown with old foe England, the Welsh succumbed to the eventual cup winners South Africa as North fell victim to a hamstring injury just before half-time.
His valiant attempt to carry on playing was curtailed and he pulled up again, punching the turf before hobbling out of the biggest game of his career.
Forced to watch from the sidelines as his team fought back only to see their hopes dashed with a penalty in the final moments the injury may well have healed, but the pain of exiting 16-19 to the Springboks remains raw.
For North, now preparing for the Six Nations international series, those memories are a motivation to lead Wales to success on the big stage once more…
RSNG George, the Six Nations is the perfect opportunity for you to deal with any demons from the defeat in Japan, what can we expect from the tournament this time around? GEORGE NORTH, WALES RUGBY INTERNATIONAL ‘Expect the unexpected this time around because it’s going to be very different. The Six Nations is one of the best tournaments in the world, it's incredible to be a part of and there are a lot of good players in great form at the moment.’
‘Key to this one is that there are a lot of new coaches coming in (Only one nation, England, of the Six hasn’t appointed a new coach).’
‘Plus there are new captains in everywhere, so it's going really hard to make a call on what to expect at all, which adds to the excitement as much for players and the fans.’
RSNG Are there any indications, based on the World Cup of just a few months ago, of any teams that will dominate the Six Nations or players we should be looking out for? GN ‘If you look at the teams from the World Cup it was a case of very mixed fortunes and no guarantees of what to expect coming into this tournament.’
‘England got to the final step for sure – but they missed out. We (Wales) were one step shy and obviously Scotland, Ireland and Italy had a bit of a rougher time than we did.’
‘But we are defending the Six Nations title – it’s obviously something we want to retain. It's such a tough one to call and with the change of guard with the coaching staff we’ll have to get straight into the games to really see what impact all of these changes will have had on each team.’
It hurt hugely. It still does, but now it’s a fuel – that kind of thing becomes your fire
RSNG What did you personally take from the experience of playing in the World Cup in Japan? GN ‘I loved Japan. The people were amazing and they put on such a great tournament. They couldn’t do enough for you and the fans were brilliant, packing out the stadiums for every game. The culture was incredible to be part of too. The high was getting to a World Cup semi-final – with the low being not getting to the final!’
‘Culturally some of the food was a bit, well, interesting. Obviously the language barrier meant it was a challenge to work out what the food was in the first place, but that was often quite funny too. There were occasions when I thought I was getting one meal and something totally different rocked up.’
‘But you’re only going to go to Japan once realistically for that duration and to go for a World Cup as well was incredible. So for us it was great to understand and experience it. Some things I can tell I won't be eating again and I’m glad I discovered a menu I could understand in the end!’
RSNG On the pitch we saw how the hamstring injury ended the tournament for you. What did you take from that painful experience? GN ‘I’m gutted that I didn’t have the impact I was hoping for. I felt like my game was going well and gathering momentum throughout the campaign. Then the injury came and that was it, World Cup over.’
‘You never really park up your feelings about that kind of thing. You look to use those emotions and that experience in a positive way instead. It hurt hugely. It still does. But now it’s a fuel. That kind of thing becomes your fire – it gets you up in the morning to train and to make the impact you want to have.’
‘You don’t know when your last game is going to be for your club or your country either so you take everything you can from those experiences. I hope I get another chance to play at a World Cup. I just know that you can’t dwell on what happened – but you can use it to drive you on.’
Wales will be trying to learn a whole new way of playing according to what the new coach wants from us
RSNG You’re taking those emotions into the training camp for the Six Nations, what does that kind of set-up involve? GN ‘As I say, with the new coaching staff it's a bit difficult to predict. We’ll be trying to learn a whole new, well not playbook as such, but a whole new way of playing according to what the new coach wants from us. We’re fortunate we’ve got two weeks to get our ducks in a line before our first game (Wales v Italy 1st February).’
‘I think it will be a tough two weeks to get back up to the intensity of international rugby, but in the same way it’s the unknown too that all the boys are excited about.’
RSNG Life for you isn’t just about new coaches and new challenges on the pitch though, you’re about to become a father for the first time too? GN ‘Yeah, Becky (George’s wife, Olympic Cyclist Becky Jams) is due to give birth to our first child in April. I’m just getting the nursery and bits sorted. We’re both very excited but both getting ready for the unknown now too.’
‘We both come from big families but both starting our own family now. I’ve no idea how I’ll cope being away from the family when I play in other overseas tournament though…’
‘I don’t even like leaving my pet dogs for too long!’
WHAT NEXT? Find out how George North has driven the success of defending Six Nations Champions, Wales.
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