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Wales great George North chokes back tears after shock retirement decision

George North gives the thumbs up/Wales great George North chokes back tears after shock retirement decision
George North said he had been living his dream as a Wales international - PA/Andrew Matthews

George North fought back tears as he explained the reasons behind the bombshell announcement that he will play his last game for Wales against Italy at Principality Stadium on Saturday.

Everybody had expected Warren Gatland to recall him to the Wales midfield as they attempt to avoid picking up the dreaded wooden spoon and suffering only their second Six Nations whitewash, but nobody thought North would be hanging up his international boots.

Since reaching a fourth successive knockout stage at the World Cup earlier in the season, all the talk had been how he and Gatland could work together to get him to a fifth when he heads to France to play for Provence from next season.

But after issuing a brief statement announcing his international retirement after this weekend, North faced the media at a press conference in which he choked back tears on several occasions. He received a standing ovation at the end.

‘I wished this day would never come’

“It’s not been an easy decision for me, although it feels like the right time and it’s the best thing for me and my family,” he admitted.

“I’ve been very fortunate to live a dream not many people get to do. And to be able to do it at home in front of a sold-out stadium with my family around me seems like the best way for me to start my next chapter.

“I didn’t think this day would come – I wished this day would never come. It was a real head and heart conversation that bounced back and forward a number of times.

“It’s about me being able to go out on my terms and being able to enjoy it, like I have for every second of the last 14 years. I’m going to use this week and Saturday to really take it all in and to live my dream again one more time.”

North burst on to the international stage as a teenager when he scored two tries on his debut playing against Bryan Habana and the world champion Springboks. Since then he has gone on to win two Grand Slams (2012, 2019), picked up two more Six Nations titles (2013, 2021), and reached two World Cup semi-finals (2011, 2019).

George North is tackled on debut by Jean De Villiers
North made his debut against South Africa at the age of 18 in 2010 - Warren Little/Getty Images

He will leave having overtaken Shane Williams as the highest Welsh scorer in the Six Nations with 23 tries and needs three more on Saturday to match Brian O’Driscoll’s tournament-high of 26.

“It has always been about me being the best I can be for Wales and wearing the three feathers on my chest. I would hate to put on the jersey and not do it justice,” he added.

“I’m still doing that now and it has been a hell of a run to get here. While there is pride in putting the jersey on, hopefully there is pride in leaving it in a better place for the next guy.

“I’ve loved every second of it and cherished every second of it – the highs and the lows. And there have been plenty of them.

“The people I’ve met, the friendships I’ve made, the coaches and team-mates I’ve met. I couldn’t have written it better myself to be honest.”

But while he would love a fairy-tale ending to his career with a win to avoid a first Wales whitewash in the Six Nations since 2003, he does not want the game to turn into a homage to him.

When Italy last came to Cardiff in 2022, they upset the party for Dan Biggar’s 100th and Alun Wyn Jones’ 150th caps.

“When I spoke to the squad, I said let’s not get weird, I asked them for nothing to change from what we always do. We go toe-to-toe and work as hard as we can to get better each day,” North added.

“It’s a must-win game and the focus should never be on one individual. We’ve got to keep doing what’s worked well for us and we’ve got to deliver the 80-minute performance we know we’re capable of.”

North’s fireman’s lift summed up a titan of Test rugby

George North carries Israel Folau over his shoulders
North carrying Israel Folau over his shoulders in 2013 is an iconic Lions moment - AFP/William West

There was a golden period between Wales’ Grand Slam win of 2012 and the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2013 where George North was as good as any winger in the world, possessing a combination of power and pace that defences could not live with. Which is why when you think of North, the first image which probably comes to mind is of him picking up all 17 stone of Israel Folau over his shoulder, ball under his other arm, and taking the Wallaby for a leisurely stroll after Folau tried and failed to tackle him in the second Test (watch video below).

The previous week, in the first Test of that same series against the Wallabies, North scored one of the great Lions tries – catching a kick on his own 10-metre line, seeing off Pat McCabe with a sidestep before doing incredibly well to maintain his balance after a James O’Connor tap tackle and hitting the accelerator.

Berrick Barnes, whose clearance created the chance in the first place, dived to stop North but was nowhere near. The closest part that Will Genia could get to was North’s wagging finger, saying ‘not today’. It is up there with Brian O’Driscoll’s wonder try in 2001. Stuart Barnes on commentary described it as “Lomu-esque”. North was 21 years old and the world was at his feet (watch video below).

On Saturday, 10 years older, North will play in his 121st and final Test for Wales, quite rightly given a final curtain call in Cardiff so supporters can say thank you ahead of his move to France to play for Provence next season.

What to make of the way his career has panned out following that Lions series? He was blighted by injuries in his mid-20s which had an effect on his form, with North suffering an alarming four concussions in five months between November 2014 and March 2015. His time with Northampton Saints peaked with the Premiership title win in 2014 and ended sourly before his return to play in Wales, having been disciplined by the club for missing a training session.

North went on tour with the Lions to New Zealand in 2017 but his stock had fallen in the four years since the previous tour. He missed out on a place in the Test squad, perhaps with the impact of those concussions affecting his confidence to hurl into those collisions with same dominance of old. North revealed in one interview with Telegraph Sport that he had struggled to do the washing up because of the pain in his head.

When we spoke for a piece to mark his 100th cap for Wales three years ago, celebrating his best moments in a Welsh shirt up to that point, the obvious highlights included the 30-3 win over England in Cardiff to clinch that year’s Six Nations title and — a personal favourite — his try in Paris in 2013 (watch video below) when in the subsequent celebrations North was mobbed not only by his team-mates but also a supporter leaping over the barriers at the Stade de France. The supporter? His father David.

In that same conversation North brought up another try-scoring memory which many may not remember – his brace against Ireland in the 2017 Six Nations. North at the time had “a long old slog of abuse and bad press over my form,” adding that he was “getting so much abuse, every game I couldn’t do anything right.”

On the moment he scored, carrying multiple defenders over the line with him (watch video below), he said: “I’ve never had so much support off the lads, and the noise in the stadium was huge, but I think my scream was the loudest, the relief of the pressure pot. I was shouting; ‘I can still do it, I promise’.”

Since the start of 2018 he has barely been out of the side. He may not have been the Lomu replica who stunned everyone in the early 2010s, but there is a lot to be said for the longevity of his Test career and the fact North has now won 120 Test caps given the level of concern for his future during that run of concussions.

His move to centre, initiated by Wayne Pivac, has been fairly seamless, accentuating his abilities to bash over the gain line and send team-mates clear with offloads. Watching Wales in Dublin the other week, he still carried with great purpose and muscle, showing there was plenty more left in the tank for as long as Warren Gatland wanted him.

That extraordinary start to his Wales career suggested he would go down as one of their greatest of all time, which of course is some pantheon of remarkable players. Even if injuries and form derailed that trajectory, North is still unquestionably one of the greatest Wales players of his generation, winning four Six Nations titles in a Test career which has produced 47 tries (so far), many of them sensational. At his best, he was simply phenomenal to watch.

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