'Man Child' North is all grown up and on the brink of his 100th cap

The Welsh Jonah Lomu reaches his century: ‘Man Child’ George North is all grown up and on the brink of become the youngest man to reach 100 caps for Wales – SPECIAL REPORT

  • Twelve years ago, North revealed his dream of playing at Millennium Stadium
  • On Saturday, the 28-year-old will win his 100th Wales cap at the national stadium
  • The winger will line up against England for the Six Nations encounter in Cardiff  

Twelve years ago George North first truly articulated his dreams.

Having fairly reluctantly joined Llandovery College, tucked up by the north west corner of the Brecon Beacons, as a 16-year-old from Anglesey the school asked North for some information.

‘They said “you need to do a pen picture, George”,’ his father David explains talking exclusively to Sportsmail.

George North is set to make his 100th appearance for Wales at the at the Principality Stadium

‘George rang me and said ‘Dad, what’s a pen picture?’ I said ‘it’s a little precis of where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what your aspirations are.’

‘We went through it – played for North East Wales, North West Wales, North Wales, Wales under-16s, Llandovery, Scarlets academy – then I said ‘what else do you want to do?’

‘He said: ‘I’d like to play in the Millennium Stadium’

‘Ok you could do that in a cup game or something,’ I said. ‘What else?’

‘He said: ‘I want to play for Wales, Dad.’

‘Really, ok, put it down!’

Now aged 28 North stands on the verge of one of the great achievements in his sport.

The 28-year-old stands on the verge of one of the great achievements in his sport

Against England on Saturday, at the stadium he once dreamed of playing in, he will win his 100th Welsh cap becoming the youngest man ever to do it 320 days into his 29th year.

Of course, we largely know the story; it has happened bang in the middle of the spotlight, right before us, over the last decade.

The golden boy who shocked the world at 18, grew up on the biggest stage and is still going, still scoring and striding with those enormous thighs ever closer to the pantheon of rugby greats.

But there is and has been a lot more to North’s journey.

After all away from the tries, the iconic moments, the scrutiny and the glory remains a quiet man from North Wales who originally only wanted to make or fix stuff for a living.

Most careers are a matter of luck, timing and consequence.

The golden boy who shocked the world at 18, grew up on the biggest stage

For North it was lucky his football team folded when he was 10 – even if it frustrated his businessman father who had just furnished the team with fresh, shiny, sponsored kit.

Instead he went to Llangefni Rugby Club at 11 and for years then had to be ferried south as he rose rapidly through the ranks.

‘Things took a dramatic turn at 16 as the Scarlets said, ‘George, if you want to continue with your career you need to be in South Wales’,’ David North recalls from up near Holyhead.

‘Off he went, packed his bags.

‘He didn’t want to go – he’s a home-bird so always wanted to be here and become a carpenter or electrician. But he went to Llandovery College.

‘We would travel to South Wales on a weekly basis, going down on a Wednesday for training with the Welsh under-16s.

‘We’d leave at midday, get down there for the training session and be back home by midnight.

North has lived his life in the spotlight since his two-try debut as a teenager in 2010

‘On the weekends he’d go down to Cardiff too – so we know the A470 really well!

‘His peers said: ‘if we had to travel that far we wouldn’t have bothered!’

‘George showed a lot of tenacity, and wanting to be in that class of player.’

It was a good idea to go. There must be something in the water at Llandovery College.

As of Saturday a third of Wales’ 100 club will have been educated there, as North joins Alun Wyn Jones as the country’s sixth centurion.

North’s captain remembers talk of ‘The Man Child’.

‘He was actually filmed in one of the games at Tedegar Close (the 1st XV pitch) at Llandovery College,’ he recalls.

‘Everyone was saying how wonderful this new winger was going to be.

‘Low and behold a couple of years later he came into Wales camp.

‘He’s still fresh-faced now – I suppose it’s the blessings of being a back!’

North did take his blows, mind.

‘We had an historic game against Christ’s College Brecon who were quoted as saying that we were too dangerous to play against,’ remembers Llandovery’s former rugby master Iestyn Thomas.

‘But the last time we played them George was injured and carried off!’

North’s father David invades the pitch after his son’s try against France in Paris in 2013

Those school-boys he played with are still North’s best friends.

He helps those around him too, lending his name to a School of Hope in one of Kenya’s poorest settlements – Mathare – a facility built by the Challenge Aid charity run by his old coach Thomas.

North might have ended up on Prince Albert of Monaco’s yacht during his stag-do, but at heart is a home-loving and rather sensitive soul.

‘The Welsh guys still call him the ‘Man Child’ as they think he’s got the mind of a six-year-old in a 7ft body!’ laughs his father.

‘He got a lot of stick from the boys when he got his first cap as it didn’t fit, it was too small!’

That, of course, was the day he became a superhero.

Scoring two tries on his debut against the world champion South Africans at 18 saw North break all sorts of records and set him flying.

It was Warren Gatland who had picked North barely months after the ink had dried on his A-Level papers.

‘I just saw an unbelievably talented person who was well over 100 kgs (16-stone), had great foot work, was explosive, powerful, quick and had X-factor,’ the former Wales coach explains to Sportsmail all those years on.

‘We saw him just being able to score tries.

‘In the 2011 World Cup he was absolutely sensational. We played Fiji in Hamilton and George was on fire. Every time he touched the ball he was just unstoppable.’

None of the North’s could be stopped when they got going – as the world found out in 2013 at the Stade de France, when David hilariously stole the show.

‘Don’t mention it! My wife goes absolutely ballistic about it!’ North’s father giggles away now remembering that infamous Six Nations night.

‘It was freezing cold in Paris and were in the front row outside the curvature of the roof, so it was raining down on us – although it stopped snowing.

‘I sat down and said to my wife Jan ‘he’s going to score in that corner’. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said.

‘I spent the first half getting hot chocolates, and then along came the 72nd minute and he scored.

‘I jumped over the top of the hoarding – it wasn’t far, maybe about three feet – and avoided three or four stewards, patted George on the back and then was hauled off! He never saw me!

‘I returned towards my seat the stewards took me to this entrance. I said ‘no, no, I’m over here’ and they were: ‘you’re coming with us!’

‘I went through the gunnels of the Stade de France, up steps, round corners. We got to the control room and I started using my O-Level French from 1974 going: ‘Mon fils! Mon fils! Numero onze!’

‘They were just going ‘yeah, alright son’.

‘Having been told off, finger-wagged, the guy dropped me outside the gate where I came in, so I just went straight back to my seat.

‘All the fathers were going ‘well done!’ and the mothers ‘if you ever do that to me…!’

‘My wife Jan said: ‘where the hell have you been?’ ‘Obviously on the pitch…’ I replied.

The iconic moment North carries 16-stone Israel Folau on his back while playing for the Lions

‘She wouldn’t talk to me for an hour.

‘That Christmas my daughter framed the beanie hat I wore as my first Wales cap, with the ticket and a picture of me being arrested!’

Later that year it was all George making the headlines. A stupendous Lions tour to Australia propelled him into the stratosphere – the Welsh Jonah Lomu.

The image of him carrying 16-stone Israel Folau on his back was iconic, but suddenly on his return home the weight was all on North’s shoulders.

‘He went to Northampton from Scarlets – god that was a mess,’ sighs David.

‘After the Ireland game of the Six Nations that year they turned round and said ‘we’ve sold you – you’re going’.

‘There was a massive family conflab. This never came out at the time, but they sold him as they needed the money.

‘George was absolutely gutted. He was going to be a Scarlet all his life – he wanted to play 200 times, be the bloke sweeping up the stadium afterwards.

‘We went through the choice of clubs and sorted out a good deal with Northampton.

‘He was accepted straight away. The reason he went was that his sister was living there – it’s very important to have somewhere away from rugby, and he could go there, have a cup of tea and visit her kids.

‘He could have family time, instead of being harassed in the supermarket for selfies and stuff like that.’

But out of the goldfish bowl North soon looked as though he was drowning.

While his Welsh try-scoring record did not diminish – he has never played more than five Tests without crossing, notching 42 in 99 Tests – his club form hit the floor.

Concussion issues dogged body and mind, criticism stung, the ball eluded him and North retreated to his shell.

‘It’s not always easy to get into that situation,’ says Gatland, who picked him throughout the perceived dip.

‘Particularly if you’re getting external criticism. No matter who you are it does have an impact.’

His team-mates never doubted his talent, though.

‘He’s taken a fair bit of stick over the last few years which wasn’t always fair because of things like leading the defensive line which he is always doing and people don’t recognise,’ says Welsh hooker Ken Owens.

‘He’s been a quality player throughout. He might have had quieter periods, but what he brings to this side is undervalued massively.

‘Playing with him week in, week out, we see his energy, work rate, and organisation that perhaps goes unnoticed.’

For some reason North is a magnet for Twitter trolls; even as he scored his 42nd Test try from centre against Ireland in this year’s Six Nations more crawled out of their caves to tell him he was ‘stealing a living’ and the like.

North himself admits now that has affected him. But in the last two years everything has changed. Moving back to Wales and the Ospreys in 2019 was the first step.

North and his wife Becky shared a first public snap of baby Jac on social media

Before the last World Cup he married devoted wife Becky James, the Olympic cyclist, who is a constant source of strength for North as someone who knows the challenges of professional sport.

And during 2020’s lockdown the couple welcomed their first child.

Ten month old Jac, born at 10lbs and already walking, will not struggle for genes – perhaps more fitting into jeans – looking at the sporting prowess of his mum and dad.

His arrival has flicked a paternal switch in North.

‘I’m delighted for him because he’s a father now and seems comfortable,’ says Gatland who may well pick North on a third Lions tour this year.

‘It looks like he hasn’t got the weight of the world on his shoulders.’

North’s father agrees.

‘You can’t put into words what it’s done for him,’ he says.

‘From an early age he’s always loved playing with his nieces and nephews. What a doting father. He’s made for it.

‘You can’t keep George down – he’s an effervescent chap. He’s besotted by Jac who is a beautiful boy.’

Outsiders have noticed this change too.

‘I really feel like he’s back,’ Gareth Thomas, another Welsh centurion, tells Sportsmail.

‘People think he’s just a big guy, physical, he’s got speed and he’s strong, but he’s shown a mental strength that a lot of players don’t have.

‘Rather than getting to 90-odd caps and thinking ‘my reputation will get me out of this’ he’s reinvested in his determination to be the George North that everybody knows he can be.

‘He’s really gone up massively in my estimations recently as I’ve seen that in him. It’s a sign of a really good Test player who deserves to win 100 caps.’

It has happened in a flash, but in front of our eyes the Man Child is all grown up and ready to become a celebrated centurion.

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