George North: Wales' 100-cap, record-breaking trailblazer

By Gareth GriffithsBBC Sport Wales
Six Nations 2021: Wales v England
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff Date: Saturday, 27 February Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Live on BBC One, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds, BBC iPlayer & Radio 5 Live, BBC Sport website and app, S4C

George North has been a trailblazer since exploding onto the Test scene as an 18-year-old in 2010.

Now, aged 28 and 320 days, North will add another remarkable note to rugby's history books.

On Saturday against England in the Six Nations, the Wales back will become the youngest player to earn 100 caps for his country, surpassing the record of Australia flanker Michael Hooper by 28 days.

The Ospreys wing has already topped 100 internationals thanks to three British and Irish Lions Test appearances against Australia in 2013.

There is something special about achieving the magical milestone for Wales and he will become the sixth member of an exclusive club.

Alun Wyn Jones (145 caps), Gethin Jenkins (129), Stephen Jones (104), Martyn Williams (100) and Gareth Thomas (100) are those who have already done so.

Born in Norfolk, but raised in Anglesey, North moved from north to south Wales at 16 to forge a career which has featured two Grand Slams, a pair of World Cup semi-finals and Lions tours in 2013 and 2017.

George North in action against Ireland in February 2021
George North in action against Ireland in February 2021

There have been challenges for the man who has played for Scarlets and Northampton, with much-publicised issues with concussions.

Through the words of some of those who have helped him along the way plus former team-mates and opponents, BBC Wales Sport charts the story of a modern-day Wales great.

Keith Withers was North's PE teacher at Ysgol Uwchradd Bodedern, Holyhead

"I remember George coming in, as a wide-eyed, bubbly young lad. He was very innocent, talkative and hugely enthusiastic.

"He was very athletic, but not necessarily the size he is now, not that much bigger than anybody else at 11.

"He was a good player and had been to Llangefni prior to coming to the school. Most importantly he was a rugby boy, who at the time were few and far between because it was a football area.

"His knowledge of the game was what stood out. I made him captain of the under-13s and asked him to do a team talk before the first school game.

George North in action for Wales Under-18s against England
George North in action for Wales Under-18s against England

"I had to stop him after about two minutes because he wouldn't shut up. That just sums up how he is, he had a lot of knowledge of the game, even at that age.

"He was initially playing flanker and I took one look at him and saw he liked to run around people rather than solely through them. So I played him at centre and kept him at 13 throughout the five years he spent in school.

"By the time he was 16 he had grown and developed and he grew again in the sixth form after moving to Llandovery College.

"His father was instrumental in his development, taking him here, there and everywhere. The problem we had in north Wales was we had little to gauge good players against because international players up here have been very few.

"I knew he was something special, but wasn't sure how he would be down south against players of similar ability.

"He is very grounded and definitely an Anglesey boy and has always been proud of his roots. He'd been back to the school when I was still there, came to say hello and had a chat.

"By the time he left our school it was only two-and-a-half years before he won his first Wales cap.

"Winning 100 caps has not surprised me and he is only 28. He has got good years at the top level and deserves every success."

Nigel Davies was North's first professional coach at Scarlets, where he marked his competitive debut against Benetton in September 2010 with two tries.

George North with his first Wales jersey at Scarlets
George North with his first Wales jersey at Scarlets

"My first memories are when George played for Scarlets under-16s against Ospreys. It didn't seem fair on the other boys because he was about the size he is now and on a different level.

"You could see from an early age he was a very capable young man. There was was more to George than just immense physicality.

"He had a natural aptitude for the game and at 17 or 18 he was able to play in the man's game.

"It was clear he was ready to play. I remember the Wales coaches coming down for one Scarlets session and I said 'you've got to keep your eye on this guy'.

"His first senior game for us was in Treviso. He scored two tries which he had to work hard for, so proved his worth from the off.

"Some boys are physically ready, George was also emotionally ready. Players like him come along once in a generation.

"It was clear he was going to make a big impact on world rugby and this 100 Wales caps accolade proves that.

"Mentally he has been strong also. It's been encouraging the last six months to see George getting back to somewhere near his best. He deserves it, being a good guy and exceptional talent."

Warren Gatland gave George North his Wales and British and Irish Lions debuts
Warren Gatland gave George North his Wales and British and Irish Lions debuts

Warren Gatland was Wales coach when he selected North to play against South Africa in November 2010, with the then teenager responding by scoring two tries on his international debut.

"That was pretty special. When he came onto the scene you saw an unbelievably talented person who was well over 100kgs, had great footwork and was explosive, powerful and quick and had X-factor.

"In the 2011 World Cup he was absolutely sensational. We played Fiji in Hamilton and George was just absolutely on fire. Every time he touched the ball he was unstoppable. The other memory was when he picked up Israel Folau on the Lions' tour of 2013.

"He played some of his best rugby in 2011-2013, then picked up a number of injuries which were well-documented, and perhaps he lost a bit of form and confidence.

"What's pleasing is he's had his ups and downs, but has now rediscovered some of that form.

"There were tough times for him when he left Wales and Scarlets and went to Northampton, although it was a good life experience for him.

"That's what good players do, they go through times when they're not always in good form.

"I'm delighted for him because he's a father now and seems comfortable. He's got a good life balance and that's key, happy at home and stuff. He looks like he hasn't got the weight of the world on his shoulders.

"So 100 caps is a fantastic achievement, given his age and potentially he could earn a lot more caps. He deserves everything he achieves."

George North and Bryan Habana after the 2010 international between Wales and South Africa
George North and Bryan Habana after the 2010 international between Wales and South Africa

South Africa legend Bryan Habana was North's direct opponent on his international debut. Habana scored 67 tries in 124 internationals between 2004 and 2016, and was part of the Springboks' World Cup-winning side in 2007, the same year in which he was named the world's best player.

"A lot had been made during the course of the week as this young 18-year-old dude was coming up against Bryan Habana, who had won a World Cup and had previously been named world player of the year.

"It's tough reflecting on that game, as impressive as George was, we did not have any real one-on-one situations.

"His first try was from an inside pass which was a dubious decision after a block from Tom Shanklin who has never agreed with me on that!

"It was fantastic for George when you make a debut like that, scoring two tries against the world champions on your home ground.

"I remember going to that game with a bit of scepticism because you don't know what you're going to be facing.

"There's not much analysis you can do on an 18-year-old that hasn't played much professional rugby and has just come out of school.

"After that game I knew exactly who I was facing and playing against him was always formidable - up there with the hardest opponents I have faced.

"It takes constant innovation and longevity to reach this sort of milestone. You don't get to 100 internationals for your country being average. Your work ethic and the ability to adapt are important parts.

"It is not through the good times you get longevity, it is about rediscovering yourself through the tumultuous times when everybody is writing you off. George has been able to do that.

"He has become an incredibly recognisable face in the rugby world and has provided some incredible moments.

"He's been a great ambassador for the game, not only for Wales but the global brand. He has the respect of team-mates and opponents.

"He has been breaking records and this one is amazing. It is scary to think he is only 28. Who knows, Alun Wyn Jones' world record of appearances might be in jeopardy."

George North tries to catch Shane Williams in Wales training
George North tries to catch Shane Williams in Wales training

North's tally of 42 tries in 99 internationals for Wales puts him second only to Shane Williams, who scored 58 in 87 tests. Williams was part of the Wales side on North's debut before retiring from international rugby in 2011.

"It blows my mind George winning 100 caps and makes me feel old. I remember his first cap as if it was yesterday and him scoring two tries.

"I remember seeing him in training and thinking this kid is going to be good. I had never seen him turn up before Wales training and honestly thought he was a flanker or second-row.

"He has been some player for Wales. What I like about George is it's not been plain sailing. He has had injuries and players go through phases where they can't get their top form. He has identified that and worked on it.

"It was not long ago people were saying he should lose his place in the Welsh team. Whenever that is said, he comes back bigger and stronger and that's the true character of a great player. That is what George is."

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