George North has been ruled out of the British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa. The Wales back confirmed he will have knee surgery next week having ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. It is a further blow to Warren Gatland, who names his squad next week, after Joe Launchbury sustained a similar injury on Sunday.
North’s absence creates a particular problem for Gatland given how the 29-year-old has excelled since his move to outside centre for Wales. North has gone on the two previous Lions tours as a winger – starring on the 2013 trip to Australia – but his versatility was expected to be key to the makeup of Gatland’s back division
“It’s a big blow for the Lions and a big blow for George as well,” Gatland told BBC Jersey. “For a number of years we thought about the potential of him moving from the wing into the midfield and how would he go with that. We’ve seen players in the past, in particular All Blacks players like Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu, start their careers on the wing and ended up moving into the midfield for the All Blacks.
“He was looking incredibly promising from the Six Nations and the way he performed. It’s a big loss for George, I feel for him and wish him a speedy recovery and hopefully he can get back to full fitness and get quickly to playing international rugby. What he’s achieved in the game’s been brilliant, 100 tests, the youngest Welsh player to achieve that goal, and hopefully he’s got more rugby in him.
“I’ve always been a great believer once someone misses out that creates an opportunity for someone else. We’ve got to realise we’ve got two or three players that aren’t going to make the tour because they’ve got injuries. I presume between now and when we get on the plane and fly out to South Africa, we’re going to pick up one or two others as well.”
The Lions head coach may now be forced into a rethink as there is no like-for-like replacement who can cover both centre and wing. Gatland was expected to select 16 backs when he names his 36-man squad next week and the likelihood was that he would opt for four centres, including North, and six back-three players.
Elliot Daly has the versatility for both roles but not the size, while North’s injury could pave the way for Manu Tuilagi, who is nearing a return to fitness after sustaining an achilles injury in September. Other centre options include Robbie Henshaw, Jonathan Davies, Garry Ringrose, Chris Harris and Henry Slade.
“Sport can be cruel,” North wrote on social media before Ospreys confirmed the extent of the injury he suffered against Cardiff Blues. “We all know the risks when we take the field. Unfortunately I ruptured my ACL on Saturday and will need surgery next week. Heartbroken is an understatement.”
While North did not appear in the Test series against New Zealand four years ago, he started all three matches against Australia in 2013, scoring tries in the victories in Brisbane and Sydney. Since Wayne Pivac took charge of Wales, replacing Gatland, North has made the successful transition to centre and started all five matches of their successful Six Nations campaign.
The former Scotland and Lions wing Tommy Seymour has announced his retirement from professional rugby. The 32-year-old scored 20 tries across 55 appearances for Scotland and also toured New Zealand with the British & Irish Lions in 2017.