Warren Gatland has opened the door on a possible earlier-than-expected return to Wales for star wing George North.
The British and Irish Lion’s contract with Aviva Premiership club Northampton expires this summer. It was announced last November that he will then move back to Wales on a national dual contract and join a so far unspecified regional team.
Saints have five Aviva Premiership games left, but whether or not North plays a part in any of those is debatable.
North’s Wales selection to face Italy this weekend comes four days on from him missing the Premiership game against Sale Sharks, after which interim Saints boss Alan Gaffney suggested the 25-year-old had not wanted to play for Northampton.
North had been released by Wales 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.
Speaking to reporters at Wales’ training base on Wednesday, Wales head coach Gatland said that North suffered a hip-flexor injury during the 37-27 defeat against Ireland 11 days ago, and was treated by Wales’ medical staff before returning to Northampton the Sunday before last.
“The message I have said to George is if he wants to come home quicker than next season, we will look after him,” Gatland said.
“We are here for him. He knows if he isn’t comfortable in that environment we will support him and the Union (Welsh Rugby Union) will support him 100 per cent for whatever happens with him.
“I understand from Northampton’s perspective, they are under their own pressure in terms of trying to get things back on track.
“George has given a huge amount of commitment to them in the first place by leaving Wales to go up there. He has enjoyed his time there, I know. It’s a great club with fantastic facilities.”
Gatland was asked if he felt that Gaffney had unfairly singled out North.
And the Wales boss added: “Coaches do their own thing. I don’t have any problem with that. I can’t comment on the Northampton situation.
“I just know that George picked up a slight hip-flexor injury against Ireland when he came on (as a replacement).
“That was treated by our medical staff, and we communicated that to Northampton. He went back up there and was treated by their medical team.
“He is okay now, which is why he has been selected (against Italy).”
North will line up against the Azzurri in a Wales team showing 10 changes from the side that lost to Ireland.
Bath number eight Taulupe Faletau captains his country for the first time, taking over from a rested Alun Wyn Jones, while Scarlets flanker James Davies – younger brother of Wales and Lions centre Jonathan Davies – makes his Test debut.
Elsewhere, there are starts for the likes of centre Owen Watkin, fly-half Gareth Anscombe, hooker Elliot Dee, lock Bradley Davies and flanker Justin Tipuric, who will wear the number six shirt alongside back-row partners Davies and Faletau.
Anscombe becomes Wales’ third different starting fly-half of this season’s Six Nations, and Gatland said: “I went to him (Anscombe) before the selection of the last game (against Ireland), and I said to him ‘look, I will be 100 per cent honest with you, I don’t know if we have made the right call at 10’.
“We decided to go with Dan (Biggar). Gareth deserves a chance of an opportunity.”