George Ford can drive England to World Cup glory, writes GAVIN MORTIMER.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of George Ford’s rise to the top of English rugby is the way he’s handled the pressure. As far back as 2009 he’s been flagged up for future glory; that year he was one of 10 teenage British athletes shortlisted for the BBC’s prestigious Young Sports Personality of the Year award.
He lost out to Tom Daley, a curiously popular diver who won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games – but Ford did pick up a gong two years later when he was named the IRB Young Player of the Year. That was his reward for scoring 76 points in helping England to an U20 Grand Slam and adding a further 59 as the young men in white reached the final of their age-group World Championship.
The then 18-year-old Ford not only beat the Baby Blacks’ Sam Cane and Luke Whitelock to the award, he also became the youngest ever recipient and the first Englishman to receive the accolade.
Too much, too young? Not a bit of it. His feet still firmly grounded, Ford spent the next two and a half years fine-tuning his flyhalf game, first with Leicester and then Bath, who he joined in 2013.
In March 2014, still only 20, Ford was adjudged ready for his first senior cap, an appearance off the bench in the Six Nations win over Wales. Eighteen months later, he has beaten off fierce competition from Owen Farrell, Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns to be the flyhalf tasked with igniting England’s young and exciting backline at the World Cup. As career paths go, Ford’s has been just about faultless and for that he has his family to thank.
His father, Mike, was a decent rugby league player in his day and when he moved into coaching with Oldham, George and his older brother Joe were often close at hand on the training pitch. One of the Oldham players, Keith Brennan, later recalled: ‘You would see the pair of them with a rugby ball in their hands constantly. They were always practising their passing and kicking.’
It was all rugby league for George in his childhood but as his dad moved into union (he was England defence coach from 2006 to 2011), so his son followed.
‘For about three years I played both – union on a Saturday and league on a Sunday,’ recalls Ford. ‘Then it came to the stage where we had to choose.’
He chose union, joining Leicester in 2009 and in November that year he became the youngest player to make his senior debut in English rugby union, aged 16 years and 237 days. He did it in a cup game against Leeds – and opposing him that day was brother Joe, who won the Man of the Match award for steering his side to a 28-17 victory.
Joe has never risen above the ranks of a solid club player but his brother has improved year on year, as has one of his contemporaries from his days playing junior rugby league.
Owen Farrell and Ford first clashed playing junior rugby league in the north-west of England. Later they attended the same school just outside London, two northern lads brought together because their fathers were coaching Saracens.
The pair are good friends despite the intense rugby rivalry that’s always existed. In the 2011 U20 World Championship final, Ford was at 10 and Farrell at 12. Less than a year later Farrell was making his full England debut. Ford, just 1.78m tall and 83kg, was considered too slight for the step up, and for more than two years Farrell – 10cm taller and 10kg heavier – made the flyhalf position his own.
But by last November Ford had come of age, and he had the No 10 shirt off his friend’s back for the Test against Samoa. He’s kept it ever since, although Farrell had his revenge, of sorts, when he helped Saracens beat Bath in May’s English Premiership final.
Will Greenwood, a World Cup winner with England in 2003, penned a piece for the Daily Telegraph on the eve of that final in which he deftly encapsulated the pair’s differences. Farrell, wrote Greenwood, is an ‘emotional, snapping flyhalf who leads the defensive charge’, while Ford is ‘the glider and the slider, who pulls the strings with his wide array of passes and kicks, chips and flicks’.
With Farrell at 10, England will always be difficult to beat but with Ford they have a chance of winning the World Cup.
– This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of SA Rugby magazine