Warren Gatland hails ‘incredible’ George North ahead of international retirement

By Sports Desk March 13, 2024

Wales head coach Warren Gatland led tributes to George North after his announcement that he will retire from Test rugby following Saturday’s Guinness Six Nations clash against Italy.

North has decided to call time on an international career that has yielded 120 caps, 47 tries for Wales, four Six Nations titles, including two Grand Slams, four World Cups and two British and Irish Lions tours, when he played in three Tests.

“George has contributed hugely to Welsh rugby in an incredible career, starting as an 18-year-old,” Gatland said.

“The way that he burst on to the scene. I can remember seeing him play and thinking, ‘We need to cap this kid’.

“He has been incredible as a rugby player, but I think the most important thing is how he has contributed to the squad as a person over the years.

“How positive and encouraging he has been within and around the group, things that people wouldn’t have seen in terms of what he has organised off the field.

“George has been outstanding and a credit to himself. He can definitely hold his head high. He and his family and friends can be very proud of everything he has achieved.

“I look forward to watching George play at the Principality Stadium one final time in a red jersey on Saturday and I hope everyone will join me in celebrating him. Diolch George.”

North’s former Wales and Lions team-mate Jamie Roberts described him on X as a “generational player”, while the Lions said that North had enjoyed “an incredible international career”.

And ex-Wales and Lions number eight Scott Quinnell said on X: “Congratulations on an amazing career. One of the very best. Enjoy every minute of Saturday.”

Ospreys centre North will continue playing rugby next season, having agreed a deal with ambitious French club Provence.

Related items

  • Spalletti: Italy will not make 'mistake' of underestimating Spain Spalletti: Italy will not make 'mistake' of underestimating Spain

    Luciano Spalletti says Italy will be true to their identity but will not make the "huge mistake" of underestimating Spain in their heavyweight Group B clash.

    Italy opened Euro 2024 with a 2-1 win over Albania on Saturday, coming from behind after conceding the fastest goal ever scored in the tournament's history after 23 seconds.

    Spain, meanwhile, cruised to a 3-0 victory over Croatia, leaving both sides joint-top of the group going into their meeting in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday.

    The winner of the tie will take a big step towards qualifying top of the group, earning the theoretically easier pathway through the knockout stages.

    Asked how Italy were planning to deal with the threat Spain posed, Spalletti instead chose to praise their opponents for their style of play.

    "We have the utmost respect for Spain's history and prestige and the quality of this current crop of players," the head coach said. "But we mustn't think that you're better than you actually are. That would be a huge mistake.

    "We are dressed in Giorgio Armani and Giorgio Armani is world-famous. So, we go there with the same suit, try and be true to our identity and play the same way.

    "But, of course, we need to show the same desire as our opposition to test ourselves against one of the best footballing philosophies in world football.

    "Once we are off the pitch, we need to make sure we have no regrets. We need to try and play our own game in our best clothes, but we are willing to scuff up our suit if required."

    Spalletti was able to use Nicolo Barella in their opening game, with the midfielder starting and scoring after emerging as a major doubt through injury in the build-up to the tournament.

    The 65-year-old was keeping his cards close to his chest about his team selection for Thursday's game.

    "I've not had any news on who's starting for Spain," Spalletti added.

    "It is one of the most important matches of my career. I've already been through some important games, but this is certainly one of those that's right up there.

    "We all have a story to tell. And when the players get to my age, they will know that they need to have stories to tell, and this is one of those matches which could give them a tale to tell in the future."

  • The Numbers Game: Euro 2024 heavyweights Spain and Italy face off in group of death The Numbers Game: Euro 2024 heavyweights Spain and Italy face off in group of death

    Spain and reigning European champions Italy both won their opening matches at Euro 2024, and will now face off in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday. 

    But both sides endured differing performances in their respective encounters, with La Roja cruising to a 3-0 victory over Croatia to condemn their opponents to joint-heaviest ever defeat at a major international tournament. 

    However, Luciano Spalletti's pre-match words would still have been ringing in his Italy players' ears when Nedim Bajrami's goal after 23 seconds gave Albania a shock lead - the fastest goal ever scored at the European Championships. 

    Yet two goals in five minutes from Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barella ensured the Italians' quest of becoming the second team to win back-to-back Euros tournaments after Thursday's opponents did in 2008 and 2012. 

    This will be the 11th encounter between Spain and Italy at a major tournament, across the Euros (eight) and World Cup (three), a record between two European nations.

    It’s the fifth consecutive European Championship tournament at which they’ve met going back to 2008, also a record.

    Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Thursday's game.

    What's expected?  

    Despite Italy only losing one of their 10 matches against Spain in the Euros and World Cup (W4 D5) - that sole defeat came in the final at Euro 2012 - La Roja are given a 45.8 per cent chance of making it two wins from two at Euro 2024.

    However, Spain has had the better of their previous meetings with Italy, winning their last two encounters, both in the Nations League, but have never won three consecutive matches against the Azzurri. 

    La Roja has also prevailed in all three of their previous European Championship meetings with the reigning champions of the competition, reaching the final in each edition. 

    The Spanish will take confidence from their opening display against Croatia, having outperformed their expected goals (xG) by 0.99 per cent, but will be hopeful of converting more of their big chances, having missed four in Berlin. 

     

    Italy was also able to outscore their xG, but by a smaller margin of 0.44, but managed just five shots on target against Albania from the 17 they attempted. 

    As in many major tournaments, being clinical could prove decisive, and this group in particular, could be the difference between staying in Germany or packing your bags for the next flight home. 

    Calafiori and Bastoni taking the mantle from Chiellini and Bonucci

    Their comeback success against Albania saw them win their opening encounter in four consecutive European Championships and the World Cup for the first time in their history, and they will look to build on that against the Spanish.

    The Italians have often relied on the experience and know-how of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to lay a solid foundation for success but entered Euro 2024 with the sixth-youngest squad (26.5). 

    Much was said of Spalletti's squad selection heading into the tournament, with many believing they would be proved right when they were pegged back early on against Albania. 

    But the exuberance of youth shone through, particularly in Riccardo Calafiori, who starred in Bologna's qualification for the Champions League in the 2023-24 season, and then  shined on the international stage in his third appearance for his nation. 

    2 - Riccardo #Calafiori (22 years and 27 days) is the second youngest Italy’s defender to play a match in European Championships history, after Paolo Maldini (19 years and 350 days, on 10th June 1988 against Germany). Impulse. #EURo2024 #ITAALB #ItaliaAlbania pic.twitter.com/2kKWNHW1iS

    — OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 15, 2024

    The 22-year-old had the joint-most interceptions (three), most duels won (six), and won all three of his aerial duels against a physical Albania side on his international tournament debut. 

    Partnering with Bastoni, who scored the Italian's equaliser against Albania, Spalletti may have found a new partnership that sticks with the defensive values that were pivotal to their success in recent years. 

    No more Tiik-taka?

    La Roja, over the years, have been renowned for their possession play during their international successes, but their triumph over Croatia saw them find a different way to win. 

    Spain had less possession than their opponents (47 per cent) for the first time in a competitive match since the Euro 2008 final against Germany (46 per cent), ending a run of 136 games in which they had more of the ball.

    With a midfield trio of Rodri, Fabian Ruiz, and Pedri, Luis de la Fuente has a composed blend of experience and youth, with the discipline and composure instilled within them at club level to ensure they are not passing for passing sake. 

    All three averaged a pass completion above 87 per cent, with Rodri (87.7 per cent) the least efficient in that regard. But accompanying their talented midfield is an exciting front line who were at their clinical best against Croatia. 

    The emergence of Lamine Yamal, who became the youngest player to feature for La Roja at the Euros, had the most touches in the opposition box (six), created the joint-most chances (three), and grabbed an assist for Dani Carvajal's first international goal. 

    Alvaro Morata, who is captaining his side for the first time at a major tournament, became Spain's outright second-highest goalscorer at major international tournaments, behind only David Villa (13). 

    Indeed, in European Championship history, only Cristiano Ronaldo and Michel Platini have netted more goals than Morata (seven).

    Spain will continue to boast the majority of possession in most of their upcoming fixtures, but under De la Fuente, they have found a new way of playing. 

    7 - Only Cesc Fàbregas (8 - 3 goals, 5 assists) has been involved in more #EUROs goals for #Spain  than Álvaro Morata (7 - 7 goals, the same as Fernando Torres and David Silva). Reference. #Euro2024 pic.twitter.com/dfGTdjuai3

    — OptaJose (@OptaJose) June 15, 2024

    PLAYERS TO WATCH

    Italy - Nicolo Barella

    Over the years, the Italy midfield has been filled with a plethora of talent that has won international honours. Nicolo Barella will be regarded as one of those should he help the Azzurri clinch their second straight Euros crown. 

    Barella has been directly involved in five goals in his last seven appearances for Italy (two goals, three assists), with his strike against Albania seeing him score in successive international appearances for the first time since June 2019.

    The Inter midfielder's combination of tenacity and composure was on show once more, completing 105 of his 108 passes in the Azzurri's opening game of the tournament, the highest pass completion rate (97.2 percent) of those who featured in the starting line-up. 

    10 - Among the players currently in the Italian national team  Nicolò #Barella has scored the most goals for the Azzurri (10). Star. #EURo2024 #ITAALB pic.twitter.com/B2RIhHFw2H

    — OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) June 15, 2024

    The saying of the battle being won in midfield is often thrown around rather lazily in modern football, but this certainly could be the case in Gelsenkirchen. 

    Spain - Fabian Ruiz

    Attempting to halt the Italian midfield will be Ruiz, who marked his 24th appearance for his country with just his third international goal against Croatia. 

    The 28-year-old was directly involved in two of Spain’s three goals in their opening game, assisting Alvaro Morata and scoring La Roja's second. 

    Since making his national team debut in June 2019, only Jordi Alba (nine) has made more assists for Spain than the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder (eight).

    But Ruiz's defensive discipline also aided Spain in keeping a clean sheet against Croatia, with the former Napoli star winning four of his five duels during the contest in Berlin, while also having a pass accuracy of 90.7 per cent from 54 attempted passes. 

  • Italy must be 'meaner' against Spain after nervy win over Albania – Spalletti Italy must be 'meaner' against Spain after nervy win over Albania – Spalletti

    Italy must be "meaner" when they face Spain in Thursday's heavyweight Group B clash after starting Euro 2024 with an unconvincing win over Albania, says Luciano Spalletti. 

    The Azzurri were stunned by the fastest goal in European Championship history on Saturday as Nedim Bajrami put them behind within just 23 seconds, but goals from Alessandro Bastoni and Nicolo Barella saw them rally for a 2-1 win.

    The defending champions enjoyed 68.3 per cent of the possession, created five big chances to Albania's two and recorded 34 touches in the penalty area to their opponents' seven. 

    However, they still had to survive a major scare at the death as Gianluigi Donnarumma turned Rey Manaj's attempted lob wide, clinching the three points.

    After seeing Group B rivals Spain thrash Croatia 3-0 earlier on Saturday, former Napoli boss Spalletti knows more will be needed from Italy next time out.

    "There are a number of things we still have to improve because we thought we were better than we were in too many situations," Spalletti told reporters.

    "We need to be meaner. We are neat and tidy in the way we build things up, we would free up a man, but then you need to go and hurt the opposition. 

    "We thought we were brilliant at just keeping possession. We need to move the ball a bit more quickly, because we did so badly on occasions tonight, but against Spain there will probably be chances to play the ball forward more.

    "Because they tend to be more aggressive in their bite and press, there might be greater scope to actually play in behind their defensive line."

    Italy have now won their opening game on each of their last three appearances at the Euros (also 2016 and 2020), having only done so twice in their first eight (five draws, one loss).

    They have also gone unbeaten through 10 games at the tournament for just the second time (seven wins, three draws), previously doing so in their first 10 between 1968 and 1988 (four wins, six draws), lifting the trophy in 1968.

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.