Anyone lucky enough to have been enjoying their Saturday afternoon at the Rec last weekend would have seen a dazzling 60m solo try (let’s not get into the grounding…) from one of English rugby’s great young prospects. The prospect in question is George Ford, who has enjoyed a stellar start to the season after his summer move to Bath from the Tigers.
For signs of how talented he is, you do not have to look very far. At age 15 he made his debut for the England U18 side, and continued to play for, and captain, them for a couple of years.
At the tender age of 17, he was promoted to the U20 side, for whom he was capped 11 times, scoring 143 points in the process. He made his debut in the 2011 U20 Six Nations, and ended up playing every game, winning the man of the match award in three of England’s five victories, on their way to a Grand Slam.
In the World Cup later that year, he was the youngest player on show and yet still remained first choice fly-half for England, leading them to a second place finish. And then, later that year, he became the first English player to win the IRB Junior Player of the Year award – at the age of just 18 – beating off the competition of New Zealand’s Sam Cane (followers of the Southern Hemisphere game will know just how well he is doing now) and Luke Whitelock.
It is easy to forget that Ford is actually still eligible for the U20 national side, despite not having featured for them for over a year now after having been fast-tracked into the Egland Saxons set-up.
Despite this meteoric rise, there is the slightest sense that his career has stalled a little. When he burst onto the scene in the 2011/2012 season for the Tigers, we saw a brilliant, but composed, young player. Last season, however, things began to fall apart a bit.
Having eschewed the chance to play at the 2012 Junior World Championships in favour of getting a full pre-season in (the logic being ‘who knows when he might get the chance to have one of them again?’), he started the season with a renewed fitness – and, crucially, added bulk. While this was undoubtedly necessary, it did not seem to sit that well with him. It seemed to have affected his kicking game, as balls were skewed and scuffed off the tee, and as a result frustration crept into his game.
This frustration was compounded by the equally-rapid rise of Owen Farrell, who was starting week in week out at Saracens and was duly rewarded with a full England cap – of which he now has plenty, and a Lions tour to boot. Ford is only 18 months Farrell’s junior, and having player age-group rugby together it would have annoying to say the least for Ford to see his former contemporary now playing on such a greater stage while he could still not get a regular club start.
Ford’s frustrations at playing second fiddle to Toby Flood began to boil over, and there were murmurings in the press that he was unhappy and angling for a move. With his contract up at the end of the season, it did not take long for him to announce his move to Bath, where dad Mike is head coach.
Tigers fans were disgruntled that a player the club had nurtured was turning his back on them, but in reality, what choice did Ford have? Warming the bench for Flood and playing 15 minutes every week was not progressing his development as it should have done, and his frustration and eventual angling for a move is, with a touch of hindsight, completely understandable.
Of course, the proof is in the pudding, as they say. When his move to Bath was announced in the middle of last season many pundits speculated whether he would actually get the starting berth he desired, with Tom Heathcote showing good form (and, ironically, completely outplaying him in a Scotland A v England Saxons game) and the signing of Gavin Henson.
It is clear now, however, that Ford has been backed as their number one fly-half, and that faith is already being repaid by the bucketload. He has 45 points from three starts and has led his team to victory in each of those games. The highlight of the season came last weekend when he scored the aforementioned dazzling try, showcasing quick feet, awareness of the space and no little pace to dash to the line for a superb score.
His passing has been slick, and his vision is second-to-none – witness the quick line-out for Guy Mercer’s first try in that same game. One botched conversion aside, the kicking demons that so plagued him last year seem to have been banished as well.
So, is an England call-up on the cards? It is too soon for that. We are only four games into the new season – Ford has to prove that he can boss this backline throughout the year, and must achieve a consistency with the boot that the likes of Flood and Farrell do every year. There was an impressive marshalling performance against Newcastle in the wind and rain, but how will he fare in the cauldron-like atmosphere of a West Country derby, or in front of the oppressive Welford Road crowd (now not in a Tigers jersey, obviously)?
If he can answer these questions satisfactorily during this season then do not be surprised to see him feature on next summer’s England tour – or maybe even in the Six Nations. There is no space to go into his contenders here, but if he continues to mature (again – he is still only 20) at such a rate, he has the potential to eclipse them all.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images