Four years’ ago, George Ford and England’s World Cup campaign was going very differently. Ford, who went into the tournament as first choice flyhalf, had just been benched for the crucial pool games against Wales and Australia.
The Wales game paired Owen Farrell with an uninspiring midfield of Sam Burgess and Brad Barritt, and it felt like a retreat-into-your-shell decision by head coach Stuart Lancaster – backing route-one physicality and defence over creativity and élan.
Of course, we all know what happened. England lost both games and were dumped out of the World Cup in their own back yard, the first – and potentially, given Japan’s win over Ireland, still only – host nation to exit at the pool stages.
England’s failure in 2015 wasn’t down to this one selection decision. There were a multitude of factors – from the disruption caused by Burgess’ fast-tracking, to Chris Robshaw’s final-minutes decision making – and they have been pulled apart and examined ad nauseum. But Ford’s demotion is one that stuck with me since. It was a U-turn by a coach opting for safety and pragmatism, not trusting that England had the team or game plan to win.
Ford’s demotion was symptomatic of a distrust in England being able to play a better brand of rugby. Like many before him, from James Simpson-Daniel to Christian Wade, he was too small, he wouldn’t dominate in defence or be able to control a game which valued size and power over impish creativity.
Four years’ on, it is a different story. Last Saturday, England became the first team of Japan 2019 to book themselves a World Cup quarter final spot with a (messy) win over a 14-man Argentina, and George Ford was the star performer.
It is great to see, not least because Ford’s past 18 months have hardly been plain sailing. Having formed a deadly axis with his long-time friend and rival Farrell during the halcyon two years following Eddie Jones takeover, England and Ford began to stutter. A disastrous 2018 Six Nations, due in part to a lethargic team struggling with a Lions-extended season, Ford was dropped for the final game against Ireland and again in the third test against South Africa. He continued on the bench for the autumn internationals and 2019 Six Nations, Farrell forming a new playmaking partnership with Henry Slade in the outside channel. Ford’s stock had fallen so far, Jones didn’t even trust him off the bench to try and right a sinking ship against Wales.
All the while his club, Leicester Tigers, were in the midst of a relegation scrap – an astonishing fall from grace for the one-time Premiership super power.
But this has arguably been the making of Ford. Threatened with having to watch England’s World Cup campaign from the side-lines once again, his club staring at the drop, amongst all this seemingly tough treatment and bad luck, Ford kept grinding away.
He was by far the Tigers’ best player, still managing to win the league’s golden boot in a woeful club side. And perhaps crucially, for a player who has always been a joy to watch in attack, he also learnt how to play behind a retreating pack; when to leather the ball off the pitch, work the angles, to play smart and boring if necessary.
The Argentina game will not win any beauty contests, but, as Ford found with Leicester, sometimes teams have to win ugly. It was a fractious game – disrupted by lengthy TMO decisions and tiresome on-field scraps – but when you have such an early dismissal, the game is unlikely to be one for the ages. The red card sucked the life out the game and England managed to perform just enough CPR to walk away with the bonus point win. That Ford was the man to administer it, in a game that was far from his ideal, shows his development.
Ford acknowledged this after the game, saying ‘It probably was helpful in a funny sort of way. We had a real struggle last year and I was probably not on the front foot a lot of the time at club level. I had to learn how to play and keep the team in it a little bit more so it probably stood me in good stead.’
That’s the hard yards, but he hasn’t lost what made him exciting to begin with. He attacks the line so flat and is uncanny in his ability to spot gaps. His kicking is varied and accurate. He is also carrying the ball more himself, backing himself once again to have a dart if the passing option is closed down. With England’s physical pack and strong rucking ability, he is generally enjoying more consistent quick front foot ball, and that is where he thrives.
Curiously, in Ford, I can see some of the impact of the crackdown on high tackles – a comparative minnow compared to most that roam the modern game, the hard-line stance on high tackles is actually working in his favour. Defenders are hesitating slightly, reticent to launch into a big hit for fear of hitting him high. If a side effect of the heavier sanctions creates more opportunity for smaller, exciting players, then this is an unforeseen bonus.
There is still a nagging sense that, in a do-or-die semi-final against the All Blacks, England may revert to the more robust midfield that served them well in the Six Nations. That Farrell, Tuilagi, Slade combination is still superior to any option in 2015 – as the team is as a whole. But I hope they do not. If England are to go all the way to a World Cup final and potential second win, then this new-look, all-court George Ford is the player they need.
By Henry Ker