Wales team: Five takeaways as George North bids Test rugby farewell in wooden spoon play-off against Italy

Jared Wright
George North lifts Israel Folau over his shoulder during the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour and the Wales legend during the Six Nations match against England.

George North lifts Israel Folau over his shoulder during the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour and the Wales legend during the Six Nations match against England.

Warren Gatland has named his Wales team to face Italy in the final round of the Six Nations as George North brings the curtain down on his international career. Following the announcements, here are our five takeaways.

George North, an icon of Welsh rugby

We had to start with the big man playing his final Test match. What an incredible player and what a sensational international career.

George North burst onto the international scene back in 2010, scoring twice on debut as a baby-faced 18-year-old against South Africa at the Millennium Stadium.

Even before his debut, North was being likened to All Blacks legend Jonah Lomu, and it was easy to see why, as he had been dominating opposition backs from a young age and left defences sprawling in his wake.

While many have crumbled with the pressure of being compared to the late great powerhouse All Black, North did not. He quickly cemented his place in the Wales starting XV and, in doing so, became the youngest try-scorer at a Rugby World Cup in 2011. His brilliance shone in his first British and Irish Lions series, at which stage he was already one of the finest wingers in the game, and he would etch his name in history as the youngest player to reach 50 and 100 Test caps.

North burst onto the scene as a blistering winger, a force of nature that was incredibly abrasive and physical. But what truly set him apart from others who have been likened to Lomu was his insatiable hunger to adapt and add to his already wonderful skillset. His adaptability is a testament to his resilience and determination.

As the modern game adapted and changed, so did North, as he became a more technically astute player, relying less on his physicality and pace. This eventually led to a move into the centres in the latter stages of his international career, and again, few players are capable of switching positions like that so late in their careers, but North took it in his stride and thrived in his role, nailing down the jersey despite stiff competition.

Many will remember North as the young Lions winger who hoisted Wallabies full-back Israel Folau over his shoulder and ran with him, but his highlight reel is seemingly never-ending, and while he may not go down as one of the all-time greats like Lomu, he is undoubtedly one of the greatest players Wales has ever, or will ever, produce.

He will earn his 124th Test cap on Saturday as he bids farewell to Welsh rugby ahead of his move to France and has the opportunity to notch up his 50th international try, a tally that would move him level with Rory Underwood as the sixth top try-scorer in international rugby history.

While he won’t catch Shane Williams (60), North bows out with a sensational international CV, having gone on two British and Irish Lions tours, won four Six Nations titles, and two Grand Slams. A true icon of Welsh rugby and one that will get a rousing send-off in front of the Cardiff crowd.

Wales legend George North to bring down curtain on international career

Warren Gatland backtracks

Wales head coach Warren Gatland ahead of the Guinness Six Nations match at Twickenham Stadium, London. Picture date: Saturday February 10, 2024.

We can assume that Gatland knew of North’s plan to call time on his international career this week and gave him an additional week off after the gruelling Test against Ireland, allowing him to rest up for a fitting and refreshed send-off. Even so, the Wales boss has pretty much reverted back to the same team that Ireland hammered 31-7.

Dafydd Jenkins returns to the second-row with Alex Mann back at blindside flanker and Nick Tompkins also returning at inside centre. Meanwhile, Dillon Lewis starts at tighthead prop in place of Keiron Assiratti.

The starting forward pack just about held on against France last week, but Wales got pulverised in the final quarter, which is possibly why Will Rowlands drops to the bench with a fresh, experienced head in the final stages of what could be a closely fought encounter.

This looks to be Wales’ best possible team at the moment and is close to the starting XVs that pushed Scotland and England all the way in the early stages of the tournament.

Inexperienced replacements

The callowness of this Welsh team has been well-documented throughout the Six Nations, but Gatland’s final teamsheet is another stark reminder.

There are 577 Test caps in the starting XV, 457 if you exclude North; an average of 38 caps per player. However, on the bench, that average plummets to just nine. Rowlands and Kieran Hardy contribute more than half of the 72 caps on the bench, 52 in total—in fact, only one other player has double digits.

Teams often go through a rebuild after a Rugby World Cup, but for Wales and Gatland, this is a far bigger task, as there isn’t even a foundation to start from. A winless campaign is on the cards for Wales and a first wooden spoon finish in 21 years, but there are clear reasons for their downfall. Experience is crucial in international rugby; right now, Wales simply doesn’t have much of it.

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Front-row concerns

After the tight five were put through the wringer against France last week, there will once again be concerns up front for Wales.

While they have proven internationals in the starting XV, with the impressive youngster Jenkins leading the side, they will almost certainly have to go deep into the fixture. It is a far from ideal situation as Italy won’t be as reluctant to switch out their starting front-row early in the second half.

However, Wales just don’t have that luxury, with their three front-row replacements having two Test caps between them, with Scarlets’ tighthead prop Harri O’Connor making his debut.

Gatland will put pressure on the likes of Gareth Thomas, Elliot Dee and Dillon Lewis to stay in the fight as long as possible to avoid another steamrollering in the latter stages. This is no slight on the players named on the bench, but again, experience counts for a lot in Test rugby, particularly in the tight five.

Succumbing to the unthinkable

Overwhelming challenges or not, finishing in last place in the Six Nations without a single win is frankly a disastrous campaign for Wales, particularly since Gatland took charge of the side back in 2007.

Rewind to 2019 and tell a Welsh fan that they would be finishing a Six Nations without a single win under Gatland, and they will have laughed in your face, but it is the reality that they could be facing this weekend.

Maybe it would be a good thing? Perhaps a disastrous Six Nations would actually spark the Welsh Rugby Union into action and make them realise that they cannot let the kind of talent that they are currently allowing to leave their regional teams go. And if they can’t hold onto them, then relaxing their selection policy has to be the next step. It’s a long shot, but maybe.

We can only hope that this is simply a blip in Wales’ development and that this Six Nations has pieced together some of the foundation on which the rebuild will take place, but as fans will tell you, it’s the hope that kills.

READ MORE: George North: Tributes pour in for ‘once in a generation’ Wales great ahead of final Test