George North freely admits he did not expect to see his name in the Wales squad to travel to South Africa this summer.
But then this past year has been one of making the most of the unplanned.
Around 12 months ago, his summer was seemingly all laid out. A shift in position and an upturn in form had seen North help his country to a Six Nations title and his heart was set on a third Lions tour.
Instead, as he tweeted at the time, the 105 cap international was left heartbroken by a serious knee injury suffered in action with the Ospreys.
It meant time parenting and punditry rather than playing the Springboks, but also an unplanned break from the game that he suggests now he probably needed.
“It was never my Plan A,” North says, the 30-year-old now on the other side of surgery to repair the ACL he ruptured in April 2021.
“I found it difficult mentally at the start because I felt I’d got myself into a good position; I was playing well, I’d gone from the wing to 13 off the back of the Six Nations and had that the fuel of the Lions tour driving me.
“That was taken away and I found it really tough but to have that mental break…I don’t think people understand the pressure pot you are on.
“You’re not just 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, and play Saturday. It’s 12 months, every day you are in the pressure pot to deliver and to perform. When you can’t and it gets taken away from you, there’s nothing else you can do but give yourself a break.”
So that is what North did, almost unexpectedly enjoying the initial part of the time off from the game having hardly stopped since bursting onto the scene as a 18-year-old in 2010.
As strange as it sounds, North believes the injury helped him physically too, allowing him to rest the other parts of his body and “cross out all the little niggles” he had been carrying.
All this while also getting “bonus” time to be kept busy by eldest son Jac, as well as being there as wife – Olympic cyclist Becky James – gave birth to the couple’s second child Tomi. “Golden lights in a pretty tough time,” North calls it.
Because while he can now acknowledge the time out was time well spent, it does not mean it was easy.
“Those first two months, I quite enjoyed it because it was the first time I had stopped in a while, but after eight or nine weeks I was ready to go again even though my knee wasn’t,” says North.
“There were a fair few setbacks, a fair few return dates put out there and taken away again. There have been some tough times and people like [Ospreys medical team members] Liam Thomas and Matthew Bowen had to drag me through a few of them, especially in my stroppy stages a few times, when that return date was taken away for my own safety and my own benefit.”
A Six Nations return was mooted by Wales head coach Wayne Pivac at one stage, but it never materialized, North admitting the first major injury of his career saw those around him needing to manage his expectations as the prognosis moved from seven months out to eight and eventually 12, telling himself, “It’s not going to get better by being grumpy”.
It did not mean that watching Wales during their disappointing campaign was particularly pleasant.
“It was weird and I found it tough because I guess I’d hoped that I’d had the ability to help,” he says. “It’s been my life, my career and a lot of these guys are my friends as well. I ended up doing a bit of work around the games and I probably find it harder being a supporter at the stadium that I did watching at home. “
He is no longer watching, timing his return to assist the Ospreys in their bid to claim a Champions Cup spot and – despite little more than two hours of rugby since making his comeback off the bench in a win over the Scarlets – earning his place back in the Wales squad.
Thoughts are not yet on the world champions, but are on South African opposition. A bonus point win over the Bulls will guarantee Toby Booth’s side the United Rugby Championship’s Welsh Shield, North saying it would be “huge” to help make it happen.
He has called his displays so far rusty, says the game has upped in physicality and speed in his time away, but he says he never doubted he could achieve his goal of getting back – and getting back to his best, aware his unplanned break could yet prolong his career.
He said: “I think it’s certainly helped the rest of my body. Not that we don’t get looked after, but in the heat of the battle in the season you go week to week to week it doesn’t really give you an “Opportunity to fully recover sometimes. That ability to have that break not just physically but mentally as well is huge. I’d like to think so – especially as I’m out of contract – for sure!”
“The time off should allow me to heal mentally and physically and certainly my body – before getting smashed around again in games – was feeling great.
“Now it’s about trying to find that consistency again for me, getting back in there and putting my hand up as much as I can.”