North still hungry as World Cup history beckons

Venue: Stade de Marseille, Marseille Date: Saturday 14 October Kick-off: 16:00 BST
Coverage: Live BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Live Sport, BBC Sounds, BBC Sport website & app; live text commentary on BBC Sport website & app

George North insists his ambition to win remains as fierce as ever as his place in Welsh rugby history beckons.

He is a lot slower than he used to be – his coach Warren Gatland joked – and still harbours dreams of becoming an astronaut, if a little tongue-in-cheek.

However few players embody the Gatland era better than North.

On Saturday the centre will become the first Wales player to appear in four World Cup quarter-finals when he starts against Argentina in Marseille.

Remarkably, his place in the team has rarely been in doubt since he burst – or even exploded – onto the Test scene in 2010 with two tries against South Africa.

Since then, the statistics have bulged like the 31-year-old’s physique.

For Wales, North is the third most-capped player, only Shane Williams has scored more Test tries while only Alun Wyn Jones has made more World Cup appearances – all this without mentioning his British & Irish Lions accomplishments.

North’s job has naturally changed over the past 13 years though at 6ft 4ins and 17st, his attributes remain the same.

“I’ve possibly got a slightly better haircut than I did back in 2011,” he quipped.

“I was very young back then, 18 years old, just a follower enjoying every second playing and everything that came with it.

“Now I understand the game much more and my role within it. I’m more of a leader now.

“A few moons have passed since then, but I’m still loving being here, still in the fight after winning four from four and excited to see how far we can go.”

‘Leader’

Gatland hailed North’s personal milestone and pointed to his settled midfield partnership with Nick Tompkins as a key part of the team’s revival.

“He’s a hell of a lot slower than he used to be, but George has done exceptionally well,” said the head coach.

“He’s become one of our leaders both on and off the pitch and a fourth quarter-final is a huge achievement.

“That midfield partnership is a big part of the progress we have made in attack and has made life easier for the back three.”

Tompkins described the “privilege” of playing alongside North and an achievement that “speaks volumes” for his determination.

Gatland laid down a challenge to North and the rest of the squad in the immediate aftermath of the Six Nations disaster.

And while long-time team-mates such as lock Jones and Justin Tipuric stepped down, North has refused to shy away.

“Gats made a very ‘Gats’ speech to us all after the final game of the Six Nations in France,” re-called North.

“He set the tone early and said it’s going to be one of the hardest things you’ve done and if you’re not ready for that, then let me know now and I won’t pick you.

“So from day dot, we have understood that’s what he was after. We don’t make any apology for working hard and don’t lose focus on the here and now, the next challenge.

“That’s how we’ve managed to go four from four here at the World Cup.

“Does it get easier dealing with the pressure? Well you just get on with it. I’m fortunate that I’ve been involved in some big games in the past with Wales.

“It’s about having that ability to focus and understand your role and understand that you’ve got to deliver.

“We’ve been here before so I don’t think we change anything. Do your job, do what you do well and bring it to the game. To go from four from four and be where we are is exactly what we hoped.”

Key to the resurgence in Welsh fortunes in France has been their defence.

Wales have tackled more than any other quarter-finalists – averaging 166 per game – with the highest tackle success rate of 88%.

“I think most of those tackles were in the first game against Fiji, but it’s something we are proud of,” said North.

“It’s been a real positive and that drives the energy in the team. We spoke about never giving up and having a ruthless edge. I think we’ve seen that here and now we have a great opportunity.”