George North is set to put 12 months of injury misery behind him by featuring for the Ospreys against the Scarlets in Saturday’s United Rugby Championship derby in Swansea.
The 102-cap Wales international hasn’t been seen on a rugby pitch since rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee playing for the south-west Wales region against Cardiff on April 24 last year. The injury cost him a place on the Lions tour of South Africa, and North has missed two Wales campaigns as well as almost a full season with the Ospreys.
But now he’s ready to start back, with Ospreys head coach Toby Booth confirming as much during the region’s press call ahead of the date with the Scarlets at the Liberty Stadium.
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“George is available,” said Booth, whose side has missed North’s firepower. “That’s the exciting part. “
The Ospreys initially harbored hopes of the big man returning much earlier but North suffered a number of setbacks along the way. “His injury to him hasn’t been straightforward,” Booth acknowledged. “We can only be governed by how the player feels, how the player reacts, and we’ve finally got to a situation where George’s body is good enough to back up the training he requires to perform well. So, from that point of view, he’s available.”
The Ospreys will not expect too much in the short term, but North’s return will be a huge lift for them as they play out the closing games of their season. He has vast experience, can help give them go-forward and is a galvanizing influence on others. He also doesn’t need a second invitation to turn half-chances into tries.
Whether the 30-year-old starts against his old region or features off the bench will be revealed when the Ospreys announce their matchday squad on Friday. Booth said they would factor in how North felt, how ready he was and also take into account that the team had performed well against Cardiff last weekend. “Injury creates an opportunity but we have to be mindful of where we are and what we have got,” said the head coach.
And whether North is in shape to tour South Africa with Wales this summer will depend on how he reacts to playing again. The Ospreys’ mantra is to try to get players back and keep them back, and Booth declined to comment on the the 6ft 4in, 17st 2lb three-quarter’s prospects of making the three-Test series in the republic.
The player himself will just be pleased to return to action. He told WalesOnline earlier this year: “There’s no beating around the bush — it’s been the hardest injury I’ve had to overcome. I’ve been very fortunate over the years in that I haven’t had too many bumps but this one I’ve found particularly difficult.
“Along the way, everyone was reminding me of that old saying about two steps forward, one step back. You’re feeling good, you push on, then you have a reaction and you go back a bit before you go forward again. Mentally, it’s been really hard.
“Watching rugby as a fan is great, but a player wants to be out there competing. Playing rugby is my bread and butter and players are creatures of habit. I want to be on the pitch and missing out on the Lions tour was heartbreaking. To miss the autumn series in front of fans wasn’t easy and sitting out the Six Nations was even harder.” You can read more from North’s interview here.
Wales were using North as an outside center before his injury, while the Ospreys played him on the wing. Where would the region deploy him on his return from him?
“You want all your best players on the pitch, whatever position that is,” said Booth. “George is a good player who can have an influence on the game. He’s played in both positions, but we want to be in a situation where he gets confidence from what he knows. We see the fact that he can play multiple positions as an advantage and getting our best players on the pitch is really important to us.”
Meanwhile, the Ospreys are confident Justin Tipuric will eventually return from the shoulder injury which has kept him out since last summer. There has been speculation the master openside could struggle to make it back, but his region of it are optimistic there wo n’t be a problem on that front.
“There is certainly nothing in that,” said Booth. “Gone [think we will have him back next season]. As far as we are concerned he is absolutely on course to be back next year.”