George North’s Test career began as an 18-year-old against South Africa in 2010, when he marked his Wales debut by scoring two tries. Now 27, North admits he would struggle to find the right words if Wales were to beat the Springboks this morning and reach their first Rugby World Cup final.
The Six Nations champions take on South Africa in the second semi-final at Yokohama International Stadium today and are just 80 minutes away from setting up an all-British final against England.
North’s nine-year international career has been glittering. He has been part of Six Nations wins and Grand Slam successes, as well as a World Cup semi-final defeat in 2011. And as he prepares to win his 91st cap, the winger knows the magnitude of today’s occasion.
“I don’t think my vocabulary is good enough to describe that!” North said, when asked about the possibility of a World Cup final.
“Obviously, 2011 was incredible, 2015 we were one step off where we are now and, from our point of view, the boys are just raring to go.
“We know the challenges facing us, we know how well South Africa are playing and the impact they’ve had, and I think it will be massive.
“I think this one has got a better feeling about it [than 2011]. From our point of view, we are chuffed to be here, thrilled to be one of the last four standing. In 2011 we went into it as a bit of an unknown and got there by sheer determination and belief.”
North added: “The most annoying thing now is just waiting for the game. The boys are champing at the bit to get involved, get in the mixer and get playing.”
Wales have beaten South Africa in five of their last six meetings, including four successive victories, and go into the game on the back of a quarter-final triumph against France. But North has not actually been particularly happy with his own performances.
Asked about his form ahead of another tilt at the Springboks, North said: “Mixed, if I’m honest. I’ve not been playing badly, but not to where I want to be. But to see where we are now in a semi-final and to be part of it is something special.
“So from my point of view we’ve just got to stay positive, keep grafting and hopefully I will get a few more touches. These are the games that you do all the hard graft for, the months of preparation, the altitude camps, the heat camps. Hopefully, we can go out and perform and have an even bigger one next week.”
Injuries have sidelined full-back Liam Williams and back-row forward Josh Navidi from the semi-final, but centre Jonathan Davies has recovered from a knee problem to partner Hadleigh Parkes in midfield.
Wales confirmed in a statement yesterday that, regardless of today’s outcome, Williams’ tournament is over because of an ankle injury sustained in training. The WRU said “his prognosis will be established in the forthcoming days” but Williams won’t feature in either the final or the third and fourth place play-off against New Zealand next week.
South Africa are odds-on favourites to end that run of four defeats by Wales, and Handre Pollard, their fly-half, says the Boks must be alert not to fall into the “trap” of Wales’ “suffocating” rugby.
“Wales know what they’re good at and focus on that. They are relentless in those areas,” explained Pollard, inset. “They starve you of possession and territory, and enforce their kicking game on you. They take away your set piece. It’s not a gameplan or rugby with a lot of flair in it, but it’s suffocating.
“If you fall into that trap, they will enforce their gameplan on you for 80 minutes, and you will probably not win that match.”
Pollard, who will be winning his 47th cap, insists there have been reasons for their recent string of defeats by the Welsh and is looking forward to facing them in the heat of a World Cup semi-final. “Lately we’ve struggled against them. It’s always our last game on the end-of-year tour, after a long season and in the Millennium Stadium,” he added.
“It’s always tough and you never have all your guys fit and ready to go. So it’s going to be nice to play them on a neutral ground with the teams having most of their guys available for selection.”