George Ford heads into the 2018/19 Gallagher Premiership with something to prove.
Dropped for England’s final Test against South Africa over the summer, he is faced with the first genuine threat to his England 10 jersey for a number of years thanks to Danny Cipriani’s scintillating form at his new club.
Ford looked to have gotten some reprieve thanks to the Gloucester man’s escapades in Jersey, but Eddie Jones’ forgiveness and the reality that a World Cup just over a year away means there is genuine competition for the vital position.
Ford has spent most of his career at the front of the 10-queue at international level, he was pretty much always first choice at U16, U18, U19 and U20. He represented the U18’s aged just 15. Even at underage level coaches solved the Ford-Farrell problem by putting them alongside each other instead of against each other, the England U16 coach at the time John Fletcher provided the template that was followed up the age grades and on into senior level, when Stuart Lancaster plumped for the pair, starting them together in November 2014 in a 28-9 win against Samoa at Twickenham. However, it wasn’t until Eddie Jones took over after the World Cup that the two were partnered up consistently, solving a midfield quandary in the process. But in 2018 that 10-12 Ford-Farrell axis is not the guaranteed pick it once was, with Ford the vulnerable one.
The upward trajectory of Ford’s career has been constant, in 2010, aged 16 and 237 days, Ford became the youngest player to feature in a professional club match when he made his debut for Leicester Tigers, taking part in a LV Cup game. A year later he was named World Rugby Young Player of the Year thanks to his impressive displays for England’s Under 20’s.
His senior debut came in March 2014 in the Six Nations against Wales. By the 2015 Six Nations he was first choice at 10, helped by the fact that Farrell was ruled out due to a knee injury. Ford ended as the tournament’s top points scorer with 75, as England narrowly missed out on the title to Ireland. With continuity a factor Ford remained first choice going into the World Cup later that year, starting against Fiji. At 5’10” and 84kg, a lack of physicality is something that has been levelled at Ford in the past and with Dan Biggar and Jamie Roberts to deal with, Lancaster opted for the bulkier Farrell and Sam Burgess against Wales. Ford failed to force his way back in for the Australia game, but when he came on in the 41st minute of that game for the injured Jonny May he illustrated what he could do, his direction brought England back into the game, only for England to fall short due to ill discipline and exited the tournament as a result.
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That Wallabies performance probably provoked Eddie Jones’ decision to go with the Ford-Farrell combination when he took over, having two players capable of directing a game. But a setback was just around the corner for Ford – omission from the 2017 British and Irish Lions squad. His response was typical, Ford was a hugely impressive performer in the two-Test series win in Argentina that same summer, revelling in the freedom of being the definitive leader of that backline in Farrell’s absence.
But there may have been a level of comfort for Ford since then, before Cipriani’s reintroduction to the fold. The alternatives Piers Francis, Alex Lozowski and Marcus Smith hadn’t yet provided evidence they were ready to comprehensively push Ford, or put his position into question.
When Cipriani was selected for the third Test against the Springboks Jones cited the left foot kicking option that the 30-year-old provides as an advantage he has, which was showcased for Jonny May’s try. His distribution from hand in the Premiership this season has been outstanding too, the latest example an outrageous no-look pass to help set up Matt Banahan’s equalising try against Bath in their 31-31 thriller at the Rec yesterday, in front of the on-watching Jones.
Ooooh @DannyCipriani87 ?
WHAT. A. PASS. ?
The man is playing with wing mirrors on ? pic.twitter.com/5njY1qBhyV
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 8, 2018
Meanwhile in the East Midlands Ford’s Leicester have had an extremely rocky start, a walloping by Exeter on the opening day led to Matt O’Connor’s sacking. Under interim head coach Geordan Murphy Leicester bounced back in style, rattling off five tries in a 49-33 win over the Newcastle Falcons, including one for Ford in a hugely impressive 29-point haul.
A thing of beauty from @George_Fordy ?
He set @LeicesterTigers on their way inside two minutes!
Watch highlights of all the weekend's matches so far from 12.30pm tomorrow on BT Sport 1 HD ? pic.twitter.com/0MymfZizt1
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 8, 2018
Ford’s importance to Leicester’s backline is obvious, particularly in the absence of Matt Toomua during the Rugby Championship. Manu Tuilagi looked his rampaging best in scoring a try against the Falcons, but he’s not been reliable when it comes to staying injury-free. New signing Kyle Eastmond is another with a chequered injury record of late – his two seasons at Wasps were limited to 24 appearances and he was released. Granted, Jonny May and Ben Youngs also offer plenty of experience, but Ford needs to take charge of that Leicester backline. Should they stay relatively injury-free and Leicester introduce some robustness to their pack (not witnessed against Exeter) it will give Ford the necessary platform to showcase his undoubted talent.
One thing that carries in Ford’s favour internationally is the fact that his Leicester teammate Youngs appears to be in pole position for the scrum half spot. Youngs has been the preferred man along with Danny Care, in rotation during Eddie Jones’ reign. Prior to the South Africa tour, Care played in all 28 games under the Australian, but the Harlequins man was rested and also omitted from the recent summer training camp. With Care’s place in peril, it puts Youngs in the driving seat. On the other hand Dan Robson, who is remarkably is yet to earn a cap, was among the 44-man summer training squad. Should 26-year-old now get his chance to stake his claim that could increase Ciprani’s prospects, considering their time together with Wasps.
England scored 14 tries in the Six Nations last year, however seven of those were against Italy on the opening day, a tally that provoked alarm bells. Australian Scott Wisemantel was brought in as England’s attack coach during the June tour and there were improvements on that front against the Springboks, but if England are to be World Cup challengers and vie with the All Blacks it’s an area that needs work. Cipriani is almost certain to give be given his chance in November to showcase he can be the man to get the Red Rose firing – Jones now genuinely has a decision to make at 10 for the first time, which is bad news for Ford, but good for England.
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