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Owens happy to have North charging to his century

George North and Ken Owens in action against England last year

Owens happy to have North charging to his century

Ken Owens believes any criticism of George North is unwarranted and that the giant back is in tip-top shape as he prepares to win his 100th Wales cap in Saturday’s showdown with England.

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North, 28, has 42 tries in 99 Tests for his country – and you can add in two more from his three Test appearances with the British & Irish Lions in Australia in 2013. He has been a superstar at international level for more than a decade since his stunning, two-try 2010 debut against South Africa aged just 18.

It hasn’t stopped the wing – now often seen at centre for Wales – from facing plenty of doubters over the course of his career, but increasingly so in the last two years. North was last week given the “green light” to return to full training with Wales after missing their Six Nations win over Scotland with a foot injury.

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Jonathan Davies, Josh Navidi, Johnny Williams and Josh Adams are also all set to be back available for England leaving Wales’ head coach Wayne Pivac with a big selection headache.

“George has been a great player for Wales, the Scarlets initially, and then on to Northampton where he had a great career,” said Wales hooker Owens.

“Now he’s doing the business for the Ospreys and it’s been great to see him getting right back to the top of his game this season. He’s a quality player and like all of us, is always willing to learn and wants to get better. He’s adapting and moved into the centre where he’s doing a job.

“He’s taken a fair bit of stick over the last few years which wasn’t always fair. He is always doing things people don’t recognise like leading the defensive line.

“It’s perhaps a bit unfair to say he’s having a second start because I think he’s been a quality player throughout. He might have had quieter periods or not got as many tries as in the early part of his career, but what he brings to this side is undervalued massively.

“We see his energy, work rate, and organisation week in, week out when we are playing with him. Sometimes they go unnoticed.”

With North poised to reach a big career milestone, Wales will go into their crunch meeting with England with a level of confidence not seen previously under the Pivac regime.

Pivac had a tough 2020 after succeeding Warren Gatland, but back-to-back victories over 14-man Ireland and Scotland have helped him to turn a corner, just as he did at the Scarlets as he guided them to a stunning Guinness PRO12 triumph, as econd final and the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup.

Now he is on the cusp of adding more silverware to his collection with Wales facing England for a Triple Crown in Cardiff. Victory would keep Pivac’s men on course for another Six Nations Grand Slam to go with those from 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2019.

“We’ve gone under the radar for the first two weeks, no one really expected anything from us coming into the competition this year,” said Owens.  “England will be disappointed with losing that game narrowly against Scotland first up, then they got a good win against Italy and are on the way up.

“They’ll be happy to have had the week off to get some hard graft in to really come down to Cardiff and hit the ground running. For us, we have two wins, but a lot of stuff to improve on. It’s all about momentum now.”

Gatland might have gone, but there are eery similarities with his last Grand Slam in 2019 and this Wales campaign. Two years ago, Wales beat France and Italy in their first two games.

As they have been in 2021 so far, they were rusty, but then in round three they blew the roof of Principality Stadium with a stunning win over England and a clean sweep followed. This time around England are again the round three opponents in Cardiff.

“Everyone was really frustrated with the autumn,” said Owens, who has returned to Test rugby seamlessly since a shoulder injury ruled him out of the autumn.

Owens has also helped Wales steady their line-out troubles and added: “There was a lot of hard work put in during the autumn which was perhaps not quite translated on to the field. The biggest thing which came from it is the opportunity boys had. We had a lot of injuries for Scotland, but boys came in and they’re much better for having that exposure in the autumn.

“They can now step up straight away. Things are continuously being worked on like cohesiveness defensively and forwards wise, nailing the set-piece.

“There have been steady improvements in both those areas in this campaign and attacking wise we’ve been a lot better even though we can still get a lot better.”

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