Rugby: Freak wing's talent spotted early

Comparisons were made at the 2011 World Cup but now they seem much more real. Is George North this era's Jonah Lomu?

Lions winger George North steps round Berrick Barnes on his way to scoring his wonder try at Suncorp Stadium last week. Photo / Getty Images
Lions winger George North steps round Berrick Barnes on his way to scoring his wonder try at Suncorp Stadium last week. Photo / Getty Images

Just how good was George North's try last weekend? "It reminded me of Lomu at the World Cup," purrs Nigel Davies, the man who unleashed North upon the professional game three years ago at the age of 18.

Davies is remembering Jonah's destruction of England at the 1995 tournament and it is not a new comparison. It was first aired during the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. But now it feels real. The eras of Lomu and North may be different but their presences as behemoths on the wing have seen both labelled as 'freaks'.

Davies goes further. "George is as big as Lomu, but probably quicker."

Davies is now Gloucester's director of rugby, but in his previous role as Scarlets head coach he vividly recalls the first time he saw the young British and Irish Lions winger whose try stunned Australia last Saturday.

"He played for our academy under-18s," says Davies. "He was a year young but he was obviously a physical specimen then and twice the size of anyone on the field.

You just see these boys now and again and you say straight away: 'That boy is going to play international rugby.' Jon Davies was very similar. You just know it is very much a case of 'Yep, we've got a special talent here'."

Davies wasted little time in promoting North, as well as alerting Wales coach Warren Gatland of the discovery. Gatland took one look at North and declared that he had the legs of a Polynesian, and so it was not long before those tree trunks were seen on the international stage.

North made his Magners League debut for the Scarlets as an 18-year-old in the opening match of the 2010-11 season on September 4. By November 13 he was playing for Wales against South Africa. In both games he scored two tries. Some player, some entrances.

Ironically North's first-team debut for the Scarlets had come earlier in 2010 in a pre-season match against Gloucester. He was lined up against the man mountain rugby league convert, Lesley Vainikolo.

"I was terrified," North has said, "I thought, 'Oh my God, I'm going to die. I'm not ready for this. He's going to eat me alive. I'm going to get squashed. I am going to end up in little bits'."

None of that happened. "George outmuscled him," says Davies, "Even at the age of 18, he was able to play a very physical game at senior level. I remember telling Bryan Redpath [the then Gloucester coach] before the game about George, saying 'this boy is going to be special'."

You could say that. "He came in to the senior squad on a development contract and within a week he was a level above," says Davies, "He is an amazing athlete because seldom do you get someone who is aerobically fit and also hugely powerful and quick. Not only can he run round people with his pace but he can do it all day."

Scarlets training became rather interesting. There were some tasty collisions. "You have to be very careful with people like George how you manage their contact," says Davies, "Not just for their own sake, but for the people around them too. But he was one of those players that, as the training session goes on, we as coaches would just look at each other and smile."

Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland says: "There we were, doing gym testing, and this guy was just so much stronger than anyone else in the squad. We were like: 'Wow.'

"But I had no idea how old he was. I chatted to him afterwards and asked if he'd done much with his time off during the summer. He said he'd had exams, and I said: 'University exams?' And he said: 'No, A-levels!"'

North is still only 21. "Even now in the man's game when he's 21 he's still like the big mature kid," says Davies, "Every now and again you see young players who are twice the age of the others in their development. George was always one of those. He was very mature for his age and I was never in doubt that he was going to make the grade. It has just been a case of managing him and giving him a little bit of time to work on his game management, game understanding and his skill set. He has worked very hard in the last couple of years on those, which has just added to his game."

With North having controversially moved from the Scarlets to Northampton, Davies will now face his protege in the Aviva Premiership this season. The fixture list will be revealed on Thursday, with Davies joking: "The earlier we play Northampton the better.

"Hopefully George will still be resting from Australia!"

It is enough said. North scares.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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