Rugby World Cup 2019: Ford emerges as key player for England

George Ford

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

14 thoughts on “Rugby World Cup 2019: Ford emerges as key player for England

  1. I just have this nagging concern that when his pack is in retreat, he goes awol, and that worries me against the best teams. When his pack has the upper hand he is undoubtedly a magician.

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    1. I think this was true to some extent a couple of years ago Staggy but would not agree with you now. He tackles above his weight and covers like a terrier in defence. My suspicion is that he has struggled for a considerable time to find space with Youngs slow service. He always looks better with Harrison at 9 at Leicester, and seemed to enjoy playing with Care and Spencer. He needs quick ball and too often has not been given it.

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      1. Andy. I do agree that his defence has improved considerably and he misses far less tackles than Farrell. Wasn’t arguing that point. Just concerned that behind a retreating pack, he can’t manage or influence the game.

        As to service, what FH doesn’t thrive on quick ball? Managed to watch the Japan Ireland game finally last night and blimey do they move that ball out quickly. Poetry in motion, and it almost certainly makes their players look better than they would be with slower ball. Just think what Ford or Cipriani could do with that service. Jury is out on whether Farrell could do service like that justice IMO.

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  2. I’m just not convinced the Ford/Farrell axis will win us a WC. It’ seems circumstance rather than preference. Let’s be honest we have been crying out for an out and out 12 for years now. Whether that would mean Ford sticking at 10 or Faz not really sure!

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    1. Not quite sure why Farrell seems to be quite so nailed down in this side. He is a good 10, but is he any better than Ford or Cips? Not sure he is. He is also a decent 12, but any better than Slade or Joseph? Again, not sure. Ford has been kicking better than him for at least a year and as far as leadership is concerned he has a tendency to piss off referees. Might the side be better balanced if there was not the regular conundrum of who plays where when Farrell is in the side? Again, not sure, but maybe it should be considered.

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      1. Faz’s form, or lack of it, is a big concern. He made a lot of errors against Argentina but said he wasn’t suffering from the big hit. Talk by several pundits of moving him to 10 so that will.help him makes me extremely nervous. We all saw him melt down against Scotland and Wales when playing a lot better beforehand. If Slade was clearly match fit and in form there might be a case for reprising the Faz Manu Slade combo but he hasn’t shown any form off the bench unlike Nowell who is bursting to go. It’s easy to see that trio going horribly wrong against Australia. This is why not playing France hurts us as we could have taken some risks in that match.
        We have won a lot of matches against Australia with the Ford Faz partnership so.that looks the way to go.

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  3. England are probably one of the most physical if not the most physical team in the comp. AUS v ENG will the epic duel of the quick and facile open rugby vs the brute force and attritional regimented. I hate to say that the latter could win the whole thing. They are good enough collectively.

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  4. 4 yrs ago surely Lancaster lost his nerve? Agree about England not trusting skilful players such as Sinbad & Wade, not to mention, initially, Neil Back. However, is it entirely true to state that this has changed? With Cipriani omitted? Morgan too, as alt to the bosh of Billy? And what of Daly not having even been tried at 13, his main club posi? Not fully convinced. I still recall Ford from his Bath days v Saracens in the title final (?) when he took multiple wrong options. As I’ve hardly seen him play for Leicester this last season, I can’t make a balanced judgement on his ‘rehabilitation’. Have to take others’ word for that. IMO, from what I have seen of him, he’s a much more versatile & now rounded 10 option than Farrell. I have some lingering doubts as to how he’ll fare under real WC pressure a bit down the road. I perceive, once a wrong’un, always a wrong’un. Now this may be wrong in Ford’s case. We’ll have to see. What I do think though, is that the Argentinian game was no real criteria on which to gauge Ford’s worth. Quality players should rise above the wreckage that was Argentina’s 14 & really made hay. Nevertheless, I’d still have Ford in over Farrell at fly 1/2 any day if the week. Then again, I’d have Cipriani in the squad as well.

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    1. I agree with the article in regards to Fords recent time at Leicester. Leicester were woeful at the end of the season and, imo, easily playing the worst rugby of any other team. Ford was one of the very few who looked the business and he was instrumental in them avoiding the drop. The one game that sticks out to me was a crucial game against Newcastle. I’m convined if they had lost that they would have go relegated but Ford played a blinder and pretty much got them through on his own. The pack was getting smashed and he still pulled it off. After games like that I’m far more convinced he could play as well as he is on the back foot.

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    1. I don’t get paid at all Andy! You’ll know some of these guys like Ewers & Williams better than me, but quick hands at 1/2, maybe Goode would have given Eng extra options & better svce, also Morgan’s alt Int’al exp at 8.

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  5. Ford is far superior to Faz as Englands 10.
    his vision, place kicking, out of hand kicking, gainline play and running game are all better.
    One area where Faz is a better 10 is on defence where his physicality and blitz defence are superior, ok he misses more tackles but stats lie and when he misses a tackle its generally because his line speed has forced the attacker back into traffic.

    However Faz is probably our best 12 as his vision/ game management is great especially when given the additional time on the ball, he excels as second distributor and as above his line speed and physicality on D is fantastic

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  6. “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.”

    Weren’t Wales knocked out of the 1991 cup at the pool stages despite playing only home games as co-host

    1. Very good point Leon, I stand corrected! With the 1991 tournament spread between five countries, I don’t think it’s really lodged in my brain as anyone being the host.

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