George North will claim his 115th cap in awkward Rugby World Cup opener against Fiji that Wales MUST not lose… so can he and Warren Gatland ‘set the tone’ for the tournament and really conjure up a miracle?
- George North believes Wales need a win against Fiji in their World Cup opener
- The winger is set to appear at a fourth World Cup for his country at the age of 31
- Rugby World Cup 2023: Click here for Mail Sport’s latest coverage from France
- Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results
Last week, George North posted four pictures to his Instagram page – one from each of the World Cup capping ceremonies he’s attended as part of what has been a glittering rugby career.
France 2023 is North’s fourth global showpiece. Only four other Welshmen have achieved that feat and at 31, there is an outside chance North could make it five in Australia in 2027.
Only three players – and none from Wales – have played at five global tournaments.
‘There are some crackers on here,’ North said on Thursday, showing a small group of journalists his phone as he sheltered from the searing Bordeaux heat.
North was 19 at his first World Cup in 2011 and carried the traditional Welsh love spoon as Warren Gatland’s side finished fourth.
George North has called on his Wales team-mates to get their 2023 World Cup campaign underway with a win against Fiji
The 31-year-old is set to take part in his fourth World Cup in France
North was only 19 years old when he featured in his first World Cup for Wales in New Zealand in 2011
‘It shows you how long ago it was because Alun Wyn is sort of half smiling,’ said North, pointing to a picture of him alongside decorated lock Jones and former back-row Andy Powell.
All three went to Llandovery College. North added: ‘It’s before he (Jones) got really grumpy!’
North will join Jones, Gethin Jenkins, Stephen Jones and Gareth Thomas in an elite club of Welshmen to have played in four global tournaments when he takes to the field against Fiji. Now one of his country’s most senior figures, Wales will need every bit of North’s huge experience and undoubted quality if they are to keep a lid on the rampant Pacific Islanders.
North wins his 115th Welsh cap and makes his 17th World Cup appearance.
‘I hoped I’d get to one (World Cup) for sure,’ he said. I’m still fighting and competing and find myself at number four. It only really hit me after I posted those pictures.
‘I sent them to my mum and she was like “Oh my God, look how much you’ve changed. It makes me feel really old now.” I guess it’s just a kudos to myself.
‘It shows all the work you put in is worth it. I’m still enjoying it.’
North’s World Cup record is impressive. He reached the semi-finals in 2011 and 2019 and suffered a quarter-final defeat by South Africa in 2015.
Wales have taken on Fiji in the pool stages of every World Cup since 2007
So what chance of the giant back – now firmly ensconced at centre after years on the wing – reaching the last four? Or perhaps even going one better? In truth, it will take some doing.
But beat Fiji on Sunday and Gatland could yet work another miracle. The Wales head coach has done this all before. This is his fifth World Cup.
Wales have a nice blend of youth and experience.
‘He has got his stamp back,’ North said of Gatland.
‘After we played France in the last round of the Six Nations, he pretty much said to us: “I can tell you now the World Cup’s going to be the hardest thing you’ll ever do and if you don’t want to be there, let me know now. He didn’t lie.”’ Gatland has never minced his words as a coach.
‘It’s really important for us in terms of trying to create some momentum later in the pool and then hopefully on to the quarter-finals and maybe even further,’ he said of the Fiji game. Gatland is entirely right. Wales and Fiji are familiar World Cup foes. They have met in the pool stages of every tournament since 2007.
Wales have won all of the meetings since that infamous Nantes loss.
The 2023 rematch promises to be Wales’ toughest yet. Can Gatland wave his magic wand yet again?
Wales could face either England or Argentina in the quarter-finals if they manage to qualify from Pool D
Few would have bet on him even being here, mainly because the New Zealander looked to have departed Welsh rugby forever after the 2019 last-four loss to South Africa.
World Cups are Gatland’s forte. He knows what he is doing and this time around, Wales have a favourable draw. If they can progress from Pool C – and it will take two victories from their three meetings with Fiji, Australia and Georgia to do so, they will have a winnable quarter-final.
England or Argentina would be their most likely opposition.
That is why the game with Fiji – who beat England last month – is so huge.
‘The cliche would be to underplay it. But for us, we need to start with a win pure and simple,’ North admitted. ‘The way our group is structured, it helps us a little bit.
‘If you ask any team in this World Cup, you have to win your first game and that sets the tone.’
Temperatures across France have generally been five or six degrees higher than in England and Wales this week. Fans of Ireland and Wales have been baking here in Bordeaux.
They are here in their thousands.
Warren Gatland has returned as Wales coach and is set to lead the team at a fourth World Cup in France
Andy Farrell’s Ireland started their World Cup bid with victory over Romania on Saturday and now it’s Wales’ turn. They can have no excuses.
Gatland’s first campaign back in charge after a sensational return following the sacking of Wayne Pivac was a Six Nations to forget. It was dominated by poor performances on the field and carnage off it, which culminated in Wales’ players threatening to strike for the game with England.
It has all been smooth sailing in France. There have been no distractions, unlike in 2019 when then assistant coach Rob Howley was sent home for betting breaches.
Gatland’s 23 for Fiji contains 10 players who will make their first World Cup appearances. They are complemented by the likes of North, Taulupe Faletau and Dan Biggar – who all have 100 or more Welsh caps – as well as Liam Williams and Tomas Francis.
Gareth Davies’ selection at scrum-half suggests he and Biggar will do plenty of kicking. Wales want to back their fitness – honed on brutal summer camps – against the Fijians.
Gatland has named 10 World Cup debutants in the squad to face Fiji on Sunday
If they are to prevail, Wales’ senior figures like North will have to stand up.
‘Everyone’s forgotten the Six Nations,’ he said with a laugh. ‘At World Cups, things happen. You need to take your medicine and take a breath.’
That is exactly what Wales did when they went 10-0 down to Fiji at the last World Cup and lost Ken Owens to a yellow card. Gatland’s side rallied impressively in the Far East that day.
They will undoubtedly have their troubling moments again on Sunday, but Wales finally seem back on an even keel and are in a good place. Gatland’s side to win narrowly.
Three vital head-to-head battles
Taulupe Faletau vs Viliame Mata
The battle of the No 8’s between Taulupe Faletau and Viliame Mata could be crucial
No 8 Faletau is always a certain Welsh starter if fit so his return from a calf injury which forced him to miss the August warm-ups is a huge boost for Warren Gatland. Faletau is lacking match minutes and will have to get up to speed quickly against giant opposite number Mata who plays his club rugby with Edinburgh and is a wonderful ball player. Faletau must to keep him quiet and stamp his mark on the game too if Wales are to win.
Dan Biggar vs Teti Tela
The experienced Dan Biggar will be up against Fiji’s back-up fly-half Teti Tela
Fiji suffered a devastating World Cup blow at the start of the week when first-choice fly-half Caleb Muntz was ruled out of the entire tournament with a knee injury. Tela, 32, is Muntz’s back-up both with the national side and the Fijian Drua in Super Rugby and steps in for the clash in the searing heat of Bordeaux. He is not in Muntz’s class. Wales ace and Mail on Sunday columnist Biggar is hugely experienced. Get ready to see him kick a lot. Biggar should be confident of edging the No 10 battle.
Nick Tompkins vs Semi Radradra
Wales centre Nick Tompkins faces the unenviable task of containing Fiji star Semi Radradra
Saracens centre Tompkins starts at inside centre for Wales after edging out Johnny Williams. He faces the close-to-impossible task of keeping a lid on Radradra. The Fijian back is one of the most freakish talents on show at this World Cup. Wales and Tompkins will want to limit Radradra’s offloading game which is a real point of difference for him. Expect Wales to tackle him high – or at least try to – in order to stop that though the risk in doing so is you get bumped off by his huge physicality.
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