- Mature fly half unfazed by maiden Test start
- Ford set to link up with old friend Farrell
George Ford breaks into a telling smile at the thought of notoriously abrasive Samoa targeting him – a 21 year-old fly half who is making his first Test start – at Twickenham Stadium on Saturday.
After four replacement appearances Stuart Lancaster has handed the precocious Bath Rugby pivot an opportunity from the start as one of five changes from the three-point defeat to South Africa.
As mature, unruffled and direct in conversation as he is navigating his way through the maelstrom of modern-rugby giants, Ford explains that he has a simple approach to dealing with anything the opposition will throw at him: stay calm and play his natural game.
“I presume they will be [targeting me] but I think it comes with the job title,” says Ford, with the same grin that emerges when asked what the Samoan influence at former club Leicester taught him about the Pacific Islanders’ rugby ethos.
“Every time you step out there as a 10 the opposition team will target you so from that point of view nothing changes from my end.
“The England coaches want me to be myself, they want me to go out and play my game, make good decisions and manage the game as best as I can. And organise people around me so we can get our attack going and cause Samoa some problems.”
"Being targeted as a 10 comes with the job title"
Ford’s short but hectic rugby career has been characterised by consistent progression to the next level, making light of tender years and a lack of kilos to excel at every stage.
The Oldham-born man’s hit list is staggering. He toured Argentina with England Under 18 in 2008 aged 15; debuted for the Leicester Tigers first-team against Leeds Carnegie in November 2009 aged 16; first appeared for England Under 20 in February 2011 aged 17; and guided the same side to the Junior World Championship final later that year aged 18.
How has the 2011 IRB Young Player of the Year – the first Englishman and youngest ever to receive the honour – mentally and physically prepared himself for such accelerated development? The sporting compliment ‘old head on young shoulders’ is often used in this context but it seems more appropriate than ever in this case.
“It’s one of those things that happened naturally for me,” he says in his matter-of-fact northern style. “I got a great opportunity to go to Argentina when I was 15 and places like South Africa when I was younger than I was supposed to, but I had good people around me.
“That’s why you train every day as well as you can. So when you get to those situations be the rugby player that you’ve trained to be. I think that’s why I train all those hours and all those days because when you come to those big stages you don’t get too worried about it and you can go out there and be yourself.
“I obviously grew up with my dad [former England Defence Coach and current Bath Rugby Head Coach Mike Ford] being in the game, playing and coaching, and my brothers likewise playing all the time.
"I train all the hours to go out there and be myself"
“I was in a good professional environment at Leicester and learnt a lot there and then moved onto Bath and that’s been even better. Then this last year playing week-in-week-out at Bath has been a great learning curve for me.”
Two of Lancaster’s other changes see Owen Farrell shifted to inside centre – where he played his first two games for England in 2012 – and scrum half Ben Youngs promoted from the bench in place of Danny Care.
After meeting aged 13, Ford and Farrell played through Under 16, Under 18 and Under 20 rugby as a successful midfield partnership, while Youngs was the first-team number nine at Welford Road when Ford was learning his trade.
Valuing them as two of his closest professional and personal confidants in the game, Ford believes proficient, illustrative in-game dialogue between the trio is the key to bringing the best out of the team.
“Communication is underestimated really; the communication from 12 to 10 is one that is massive in terms of the impact on the way you play. They’ve probably got a little bit more time to look up and see what’s in front of them and feed the information into the 10.
“Whether it’s Owen at first receiver or I’m first receiver it doesn’t really matter; we’re going to play what we see and communicate that to each other."My relationship with Owen means a lot to me"
“My relationship with Owen means a lot to me because we understand each other’s game and we’ve obviously done it before. We both try and bring everybody up to that [level of] understanding so we can gel as a team and go out there and put our game on the pitch.
“Ben has been brilliant for me too. He’s a great lad to have around and a great lad to play with. He’s that much of a threat himself that he can take a lot of pressure off a 10. He’s not afraid to organise and step up when he needs to and take the lead when it comes to the kicking game or running game.”
Ford has dazzled in Bath’s surge up the Aviva Premiership table this season, demonstrating the blend of ice-cool game-management and incisive attack that fly halves desire. Words such as organise, manage, review and decide crop up regularly in Ford’s conversations and therein lies what has so impressed the Lancaster and his coaches.
Coming into the England environment, bossing around established internationals and running a game at such a young age challenges self-confidence in a unique way, but Ford relishes the responsibility. After all, this is the young man who would volunteer at 17 to stand up with a flip-chart and explain defensive shape to England age-grade colleagues three years his senior.
“As a 10 you’ve got to [communicate clearly] because if you don’t you’ll be found wanting,” Ford adds. “It’s your job, you’ve got to be vocal and you have to take the lead. You’ve got to game-manage as well as try and create opportunities to score tries and you can only do that by talking.”
Would it be foolish to suggest that the first Test start of a 21 year-old fly half seems overdue? It somehow feels that way with George Ford. He is to the manner born.