Sam Warburton has dubbed George North a rugby ‘freak’ and tipped him to go on to break the world Test appearances record.
North is set to win his 100th Wales cap against England this weekend, with a further three games under his belt for the Lions.
Warburton feels North, still only 28, has the time on his side to surpass any figure set by his current Welsh skipper Alun Wyn Jones, who himself passed the record held by legendary New Zealand star Richie McCaw during the autumn.
North is likely to return to Wayne Pivac’s starting XV for the Triple Crown clash with Eddie Jones’ men at the Principality Stadium, having missed his chance to reach the century mark against Scotland because of injury.
And Warburton has spoken glowingly about the career to date of his close friend – and what he can yet go on to achieve.
In a column for the Sunday Times Warburton outlined how he set eyes on North as a teenager when they were bursting through under Warren Gatland heading towards the 2011 World Cup.
He details the first time North was called up by Gatland, with the squad meeting early in the week for gym work.
“As I wandered over to the bench, I presumed the player lifting the 65kg dumbbells with ease was one of the forwards,” writes Warburton.
“He finished his set and got up and to my astonishment it was George. I was shocked. This 18-year-old winger was already one of the strongest players in the squad. ‘This guy is a freak,’ I thought to myself.”
Coupled with North’s ‘genetic gifts’ as an athlete, Warburton says: “I knew back then that he was going to be a world-beater.”
They became great friends, on and off the pitch, Warburton revealing: “I was a groomsman when he married Becky in 2019. I had my stag do in Newcastle and he had his at the Monaco Grand Prix, with us ending up on Prince Albert’s boat. So if you want to compare our careers it’s probably best to compare them by our stag dos too!”
North scored two tries on his Wales debut against South Africa, followed that with what Warburton told him on the team bus was “probably the greatest individual try in Lions Test history” against Australia and earned favourable comparisons to Jonah Lomu because of his pace, size and power.
On the way there have been the inevitable bumps in the road. North sustained a number of head injuries that left some fearing for his career, while he also found it hard to shrug off the charge of inconsistency. The big man could be a world-beater one game and ordinary the next.
As recently as last autumn his Wales place was in doubt as he was sent back to the Ospreys to bank game-time.
But he has been outstanding since, shining on the wing for his region and in the centre for Wales.
Warburton argues no-one in the game can constantly shine on an upward curve for 10 years, turning to his own experiences as a player to offer North words of encouragement when the flak started flying.
“I said that he should realise how good he has been and still is. I always say to him ‘I was pretty comfortable as a defender, but I would never want you running at me’,” writes Warburton.
“We are very similar characters. When you have a bad game you think everyone is being as critical of you as you are of yourself. You are almost embarrassed to leave the house because you fear people are judging you.
“What you need to recognise is that there are only a minority of people thinking that way. Most people in Wales adore George. If he retired tomorrow there would be an outpouring of gratitude and awe for what he has done.
“Sometimes the criticism you receive can overshadow the plaudits and that could be the case with George. “
As such, Warburton says reaching the 100 cap milestone will be important to North as “a confirmation of his standing in the game in his own mind.”
With 42 Wales tries to his name already, Warburton reckons North will follow that 100th Test, probably in the centre against England on Saturday, with many more appearances in the red.
“It is scary to think how many caps he could get. Alun Wyn Jones has 145 for Wales but he must be looking behind him and thinking that record may not last long,” continues Warburton, who goes on to warn England: “He will want to make this 100th cap a special one in every sense.”