He’s endured a tough week at club level with criticism coming his way for an apparent unwillingness to play for Northampton Saints, yet George North put his club woes behind him as he returned to the Welsh squad in scintillating fashion with a brace of tries in a 38-14 win over Italy.
North was on the scoreboard after mere minutes as he finished off excellent work from Owen Watkin. He was powerful in attack and tenacious in defence too as the Azzurri struggled to cope with a man starting a first game for his country since last year’s Six Nations.
He finished off a move in the 65th minute for a second score and was unlucky not to grab a third at the death as he had another ruled out for a forward pass earlier in the move.
Here, we analyse the performance of the coveted star.
Tries – 2
Passes – 5
Runs – 11
Metres made – 101
Clean breaks – 0
Defenders beaten – 3
Tackles – 3
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 0
North had endured a week in which he found himself at the centre of controversy after being accused of not wanting to play for Northampton last weekend. The 25-year-old will return to Wales next season on a national dual contract and could come back even sooner – after the Six Nations – if his club relations have broken down.
While in Northampton he might be a sinner right now, in Cardiff though he was a Saint as he returned to what he knows best in his first Six Nations start in almost a year, scoring tries.
Italy have seen enough of North over the years and he has now crossed for his eighth try in eight matches against the Azzurri.
Power – It’s been a tumultuous few years for North in a Wales shirt as injuries have taken their toll on the big man. With continued concussions raising concerns about his wellbeing and even his future in the game – despite being just 25 – this was a true return to form for the powerhouse. Blistering pace married with a battering ram style, North was an absolute meance all evening.
Ruthlessness – North’s calling card in his still relatively young career has been his uncanny ability to sniff out try-scoring opportunities. And even though he’s been away for a while he was quickly back among the scorers. He was on hand to finish off Owen Watkin’s brilliant run, strolled over for a second and can count himself unfortunate not to have had a hat-trick at the death.
Recklessness – Even though his brute strength is one of his biggest attributes it’s easy to see why so many in the game are concerned for North’s health amid a myriad of concussions throughout his young career. He flings himself into opponents with little care for his own safety and while rugby by its very definition is a combative sport, North’s head down and plough ahead style of play can be petrifying to watch.
4th min CHANCE: Two trademark runs from the big man see him take Wales close to the line from a penalty, in turn leading to the opening try for Hadleigh Parkes.
6th min TRY: Owen Watkin does brilliantly to pick up and counter after a terrible blind pass from Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda. He makes 50 metres and then finds North surging up on his shoulder and he finishes off.
43rd min RUN: Again the wideman is in the thick of the action as Wales make light of Liam Williams’ yellow card to surge into Italy territory. After Gareth Davies charges down Matteo Minozzi’s clearing kick, North carries the ball and defenders with him close to the line. Seconds later Cory Hill is over.
45th min TURNOVER: Tracking back, North makes a fine tackle and is immediately up on his feet to try and steal the ball, forcing a penalty for holding on. Great work.
63rd min RUN: Aled Davies tries a cheeky back-handed pass to North but it was a little too ambitious. Flashy but without the desired result
65th min TRY: He’s been a huge presence all day and he’s over for his second score. Good work by the forwards, Aled Davies feeds replacement Patchell who has enough strength to offload to North and he strolls over for his second of the afternoon
76th min RUN: In addition to his two tries, North has been the most potent attacking threat on the pitch. Another foray forward takes him past 100 metres made
80th min TRY DISALLOWED: North thinks he’s scored his hat-trick on the right wing, but his third try is taken away from him. Wales knocked the ball on through Aled Davies way back in the move. A wry smile on the face of the Saints winger. He’s been devilishly good today
The North Walian was making his first full appearance for his nation since the closing stages of the 2017 Six Nations. And while he’s been away Wales have blooded some new talents on the wing, with Josh Adams and Steff Evans taking their chance to pick up the mantle out wide. Evans in-particular has been a revelation this championship, with five tries in his first eight Wales appearances, but North returned with a vengeance as he proved just what an elite winger he is. Simply put, North is a finisher. Once he gets a sniff of the line he rarely fails to cross it, with his brute strength and fearsome pace still a deadly combination.
He bagged his 31st and 32nd tries against the Azzurri and is now just one behind the legendary Ieuan Evans in third on the all-time list. If he can stay clear of his concussion issues, there’s absolutely no reason why he can’t surpass Gareth Thomas (40) in second and ultimately Shane Williams (58) at top spot, as he’s only just 25.
South Africa-born back-rower CJ Stander has admitted NatWest 6 Nations champions Ireland’s Grand Slam bid against England is now the biggest game of his career.
The Munster loose forward insisted he appreciates the significance of helping Ireland chase just a third-ever Six Nations clean sweep, especially on St Patrick’s Day and at Twickenham.
Ireland claimed a record 11th consecutive win with Saturday’s 28-8 victory over Scotland, and that proved enough to swipe the title a week early as England lost 22-16 to France in Paris.
Former South Africa Under-20s star Stander swapped Super Rugby’s Blue Bulls for Munster in 2012 after Springboks coaches told him he was too small to be a Test-match flanker.
Six years on he has a British and Irish Lions cap, helped Ireland claim a maiden win over New Zealand – and now has the chance to drive Joe Schmidt’s men to a first Grand Slam since 2009.
Asked if Saturday’s Twickenham showdown is now the biggest game of his career, Stander replied: “Yes, for sure; there’s an opportunity to create something for ourselves as a group.
“Some of us, it’s their first Six Nations, some of us have been here for a few years.
“Preparation wise, put the head down, make sure you train well and get into the team for Saturday.
“It’s a great opportunity. You set goals for yourself at the beginning of the year and on a personal level you strive to be part of that.
“Now we’ve got an opportunity and we’ve got to make sure we rest up and get ready for next week.
“We’ve talked to players and ex-players who won the Grand Slam. This group, we haven’t had the opportunity so we can look back at how they did it and what it meant to them. We’ve still got a job to do.”
Allied to setting a new all-time national win record, Kiwi coach Schmidt has now guided Ireland to three Six Nations titles in just five years.
Stander has become an Ireland mainstay under Schmidt since qualifying on residency and making his debut in the 2016 Six Nations.
The 27-year-old has always spoken candidly about his decision not to accept the Springboks’ attempts to convert him into a hooker, believing him too small to cope as a Test back-row forward.
But now with 22 Ireland caps under his belt in the back-row, Stander feels his decision more vindicated than ever, even though he knows some may never agree.
Asked if opportunities like chasing a Grand Slam with Ireland only serve to add more credence to his original decision to leave South Africa, Stander said: “Yes but at the same time a lot of players make a lot of sacrifices.
“I’ve made a lot of sacrifices to be here but a lot of people stuck their head out for me and taught me a lot of the game.
“I lost a lot of friends and coaches along the way so it’s good to give them something back.
“We said as a group we wanted to achieve something. That was probably in the back of our minds, we’ve played well in the last few games, got lucky as well in a few games.
“Some games we were physically dominant. It’s a great achievement for this group and hopefully we can push on.”
A much-changed Wales overcame yellow cards to Liam Williams and Gareth Davies to put Italy to the sword at Principality Stadium and place themselves in the mix for the runners-up spot in the Six Nations.
With injuries blighting their campaign, 10 changes were made by Warren Gatland, with several players making their first starts, while all eyes were on debutant James Davies at flanker.
Here, we analyse the performance of Davies and two other new faces with an evolving Wales squad looking to blood a wave of new talent ahead of next year’s World Cup.
James Davies (27)
Passes – 3
Runs – 4
Metres made – 20
Tackles – 18
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 1
The Welsh public has been waiting a while to see the Scarlets flanker get his hands on a red jersey at international level, and they weren’t disappointed as Davies put in an all-action performance.
The man nicknamed “Cubby Boi” has put in numerous man-of-the-match displays at club level where he has won a Pro12 title, but for some reason the 27-year-old has had to wait for recognition at international level – in stark contrast to older brother Jonathan who has earned 65 caps for the Dragons and been one of the standouts for Warren Gatland – for Wales and the Lions – for much of the last decade.
The elder Davies is nicknamed ‘Fox” which in turn explains James’ moniker, which became infamous after a trip to Las Vegas in which he got it tattooed on his knuckles.
It is crazy shenanigans such as that off the pitch, and sometimes on it, that has apparently deterred the Welsh management from giving Davies a shot; it was the morning after the Vegas incident that Davies found out he hadn’t been included in Wales’ 2015 Rugby World Cup squad.
Wales have a number of superb options at flanker, but other than Justin Tipuric – who also somehow struggles to get a proper look-in – lack genuine dynamism.
Davies showed that in abundance as he made several forays forward against Italy as well as making the most tackles of any Welsh player.
He did more than enough to suggest he can thrive at international level – forcing a turnover, stealing possession and gathering a well-weighted chip to set up a sparkling move that almost yielded a try for Steff Evans. His performance was only blighted by a shoulder charge and a knock-on.
Owen Watkin (21)
Passes – 6
Runs – 2
Metres made – 56
Tackles – 10
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 0
Like Davies at flanker, Wales have been accused of a lack of ideas at centre in recent years, where the crash ball skills of Jamie Roberts were utilised heavily throughout the ‘Warrenball’ days.
Wales and their head coach were rightly accused of being too one-dimensional, especially when they had the guile of Scott Williams and Jonathan Davies at their disposal.
But with Roberts in his twilight years and Gatland’s era coming to an end, the Kiwi has admirably begun the handover by belatedly switching up Wales’ attacking approach, with Watkin bedded in during the autumn internationals.
The young centre’s cunning and footballing instincts epitomise Gatland’s free-running tactical shift for the game against porous opposition and it didn’t take long for the Ospreys centre to have an impact.
A brilliant intercept after a terrible blind pass from Italy flanker Maxime Mbanda saw the centre surge up the middle of the field and into enemy territory. His speed was impressive and when he was running out of room, he had the presence of mind to slow down slightly and fling a perfect pass into the arms of George North who finished with aplomb. It was brilliant vision from Watkin, coupled with searing pace and intelligence that belied his 21 years.
He made the third-most metres of any team-mate outside North and Evans and also put in a shift in defence, making 10 tackles – joint sixth in a red shirt.
In the build-up to the game Watkin had revealed his dream of wanting to play in a World Cup. He certainly didn’t do his prospects any harm here.
Elliot Dee (24)
Passes – 2
Runs – 9
Metres made – 4
Tackles – 10
Missed tackles – 0
Penalties conceded – 1
Recovered from an early penalty conceded for taking out Sergio Parisse as Italy pressed near the Wales line to enjoy a near faultless display.
The hooker, like Watkin, has been around the fringes of the squad since featuring in the autumn, making his debut against Georgia. But he shone on his first start with his insatiable work rate evident throughout.
The Dragons prospect epitomises what the modern forward is all about. Long gone are the days when a portly battering ram would thrive at the elite level. Today everyone in the pack has to be an athlete and Dee showed desire to scrap for every ball – effective in both defence and attack.
He even could have had a try at the end of the first half when he saw an opening and scampered to brilliantly charge down Azzurri scrum-half Marcello Violo’s box kick. He was held back as he dived on the ball, and even though a penalty was given by Jerome Garces, Violo survived being sin-binned.
Dee spoke earlier this week of wanting to make his late mum Lynn proud when he made his first start for Wales, on Mother’s Day.
The Dragons hooker, who turned 24 last week, lost his mum two years ago but she surely would have been proud of her son’s blistering performance.