George North believes Wales are in their “best-ever” position and ready to cope with the huge weight of national expectation heading in to the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
European champions Wales head towards that tournament in Japan as the form team in international rugby and only behind New Zealand in the world rankings.
Wales secured the Six Nations Grand Slam with a 14th successive win in March, and Warren Gatland’s side have not tasted defeat since losing to Ireland in February 2018.
“We’re in the best position we’ve ever been in,” North said at Wales’ kit launch for the World Cup.
“Historically we’ve always been the underdogs going in. We’ve often struggled with the Six Nations before it, there’s often more to go.
“But the squad’s been in a great place for the last two years. It’s a great mixture of not only young and old players, but a lot of younger players with great experience to push on the older players.
“It’s quite a settled number and everyone knows what they’re doing.
“The most brutal thing now is cutting down (the squad) from 40-odd to 31 and being ready to go. All we can do now is put our best foot forward and keep slogging.”
Lions star North made his World Cup debut in 2011 when Wales made the semi-finals in New Zealand, agonisingly losing 9-8 to France after captain Sam Warburton’s early red card.
The 27-year-old wing or outside centre was also in the Wales side that exited the 2015 World Cup at the quarter-final stage against South Africa.
Wales’ rise up the world rankings since and the best unbeaten run in their history – Gatland’s men have defeated every side in World Rugby’s top eight except New Zealand since they started their winning burst – has raised excitement levels ahead of the World Cup to fever pitch.
Asked if Wales could meet those expectations, North said: “I think so. If you look at the Six Nations and autumn series we slogged games out when we shouldn’t have.
“We’ve probably been guilty in the past of not being able to close games out when we should have and they were there for the taking.
“The development of this team has taken a big step forward from going toe to toe and going the extra mile in those last 10 or 15 minutes of games.
“We haven’t faded away, we’ve been able to push on again and get results when we’ve historically flaked away and lose at the end.”
Wales have been boosted by the return of Bath back-rower Taulupe Faletau, who missed the four-game autumn series clean sweep after breaking his arm in October.
The two-time British and Irish Lion then had to sit out the Six Nations after suffering another injury to the same right arm and undergoing further surgery.
But Faletau and lock forward Cory Hill, who suffered an ankle injury in the act of scoring a try during the Six Nations win against England in February, are back with the squad ahead of a two-week training camp in Switzerland.
“It’s been pretty savage,” North said about the start of Wales’ World Cup training programme.
“These early weeks you’ve got to get good volume in your legs and lungs and get in the best position for that last selection.
“We’ve got a tough fortnight in Switzerland, which is visually a beautiful place but it won’t be for us. It will be full fat milk over there!
“Then it will be a week back here and into the (warm-up) games against England and Ireland.”