North glad to be Wales' hero rather than Saints' 'sinner'


Cardiff (United Kingdom) (AFP)

George North was delighted to get back to scoring tries for Wales on Sunday after his English club suggested he had deliberately missed a match.

The 25-year-old scored two of his side's five tries in a 38-14 win over bottom-of-the-table Italy in Cardiff that saw Wales go second in the Six Nations standings with just one round remaining.

Sunday's match was North's first start of the Six Nations and came just days after he missed Northampton's game against Sale, after which interim Saints boss Alan Gaffney suggested he had not wanted to play for the Midlands club.

"It's been a difficult couple of weeks, but it's been good to be in camp with a real focus," North told reporters after making it eight tries in as many Tests against Italy, while going fourth in Wales' all-time standings with 32 tries.

"International rugby is a tough old place and you have to keep your head on you, focus on the challenges ahead. And for me it was a case of looking at Italy and making sure it was full steam ahead."

Powerhouse wing North had been released by Wales last week as it was a Six Nations fallow week, but he did not feature for Northampton amid reports he had an arrangement with former Saints rugby director Jim Mallinder that he would not play club rugby on rest weekends.

It had already been announced that North will leave Northampton at the end of the season to continue his club career at an as yet unnamed Welsh regional side and, judging by the joyful reaction of a crowd of over 65,000 to his latest try-scoring exploits, his return to the principality cannot come soon enough.

Wales coach Warren Gatland, who said during the week that North had suffered a hip injury during last month's 37-27 defeat by Ireland, backed his flyer again on Sunday.

"My role is to support players and if something does happen, we're here," Gatland said.

"I know he's enjoyed his time in Northampton," the New Zealander added.

"I just thought it was my job to put him at ease in case something spiralled out of control."

North might have had a hat-trick but French referee Jerome Garces disallowed a late effort for a knock-on in the build-up.

- French threat -

"To get a chance to play in a great stadium like this in front of a great bunch of fans was great," said North.

"Two tries was a bonus, but I was gutted to see the third one disallowed. That would have been the icing on the cake, but a bonus-point victory puts us in a great position for next Saturday."

Wales will definitely finish second to already-crowned champions Ireland if they record a second straight bonus-point win at home to France on March 17.

But the French will arrive at the Principality Stadium on the back of a morale-boosting 22-16 win at home to England -- a result that ensured the English could not win a third straight Six Nations title.

"If you look at the way they (France) are playing, it's great," said North.

"They're playing the sort of rugby you usually expect from France using some big, heavy guys.

"We need to improve to face them. I'm not sure what the penalty count was, but it was seven or eight in the first half and with France coming we can't afford that."