One of the most agonising trends in British sport is the suffocation of fledgling talent. Rather than embrace and nurture our most promising youth, a claustrophobic media circus so often stifles development, reducing the subject to the status of shooting star or could-have-been. For that very reason, everyone connected with English rugby should count their lucky stars that George Ford plays for Leicester Tigers.
On Saturday evening in the East Midlands sunshine, Ford made another irresistible statement of his immense promise. The reigning IRB World Young Player of the year – the only man from this country to ever win that award – put in a superb showing to guide Richard Cockerill’s side past Saracens and into an eighth successive top-flight final.
For a 19 year-old to survive the ferocious physicality of the tie was impressive in itself – there were some fearful collisions, as you would expect with bruisers like Manu Tuilagi and Mouritz Both flying high on adrenaline. That Ford directed the pace of Leicester’s attacks, while also retaining enough composure to kick 14 vital points amid a truly harum-scarum atmosphere, defined his class.
The first ten minutes of the second period provided enough evidence for the highest plaudits. Moments after slicing a relatively straightforward kick at goal – something that would have been debilitating for those with less mettle – Ford scooped a wayward pass from Ben Youngs off his bootlaces, out-muscled Charlie Hodgson and accelerated thirty metres up field. The break led to a try in the left-hand corner for irrepressible Tongan Steve Mafi, the pivotal score of the match.
It is worth noting that all of this was achieved despite the fact that Ford was only told an hour before kick-off that Toby Flood was unfit and he would be starting. He has some bottle.
At the final whistle, Tigers’ latest hero was staggeringly modest and unassuming. He paid tribute to Youngs for easing what would otherwise have been a nervous week in the lead-up to the game. Then came the important bit, as Ford explained, “This is just a great team to be a part of.” He is also pretty astute.
Son of Mike, the granite-hard defence guru charged with reinvigorating Bath next season, raised in league land up North, Ford will not need to be warded from complacency or arrogance at any point. Even if he did, he has a perfect setting to keep him on the straight and narrow. Egos simply do not survive at Welford Road.
In fact, regardless of his exploits, Ford may not even survive a selectors’ meeting to feature in the final against Harlequins. As Cockerill bluntly outlined in the aftermath of his charges’ 24-15 triumph, “Floody is our first-choice fly-half.” Pending recovery from an ankle injury then, the elder statesman will be trusted at Twickenham.
That is not to say Ford is not hugely appreciated at Leicester. A safer option for the weekend would have been to deploy dependable Billy Twelvetrees in the half-back hotseat. However, Matt O’Connor is clearly a fantastic man-manager with admirable faith in the mantra that if one is good enough, one is old enough also.
In past weeks, though, the young stand-off’s worth has truly emerged. While terrorising his peers in this autumn’s Under 20 Six Nations, it had appeared that Ford would spend the ‘off-season’ in South Africa attempting to avenge England’s painfully close loss to New Zealand in last year’s Junior World Cup final. Then, when Rob Hunter’s squad was announced at the start of this month, one name was noticeably absent.
Whispers suggesting that Ford was in line for a senior tour under Stuart Lancaster began to float around press boxes, and why not? Owen Farrell, an equally unflappable contemporary, has taken to the international arena brilliantly. By Ford’s age, Australian James O’Connor was the proud owner of a Wallaby Test cap. Both Kurtley Beale and Quade Cooper were at least Super Rugby regulars. Needless to say, Leicester is a long way from the Antipodes.
Barring a string of injuries, Ford will be nowhere near an England shirt this summer. Instead, he will run himself ragged in the East Midlands with weights, tyres, speed-sleds and masochistic fitness coaches for company. Believe me, at times he will wish he had 80 minutes of tackling Pierre Spies to look forward to but ironically, being spared a trip to the opposite hemisphere is actually a mark of Ford’s value to club and country. Both camps know just how influential he may be in the future.
Tigers are keen to keep him in sight because besides anything else, it is possible that this will be the only full pre-season he is afforded for the rest of his playing career. Certainly, when 2015 rolls around, he will be very busy.