Bath vs Toulouse: Misfiring George Ford deserves England start, insists Flood

Ford’s easy turnovers conceded after the tackle and occasionally aimless kicks for position would be meat and drink to the All Blacks

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The Independent Online

The England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, reminded his fly-halves last week to prioritise everything done well, over the occasional flash stuff, so George Ford’s performance in Bath’s 21-19 loss to Toulouse at The Rec on Saturday was a setback to the 21-year-old’s case for a starting position in the autumn internationals.

Ford’s easy turnovers conceded after the tackle and occasionally aimless kicks for position would be meat and drink to the All Blacks and the other southern hemisphere bigwigs heading Twickenham way next month.

The big question was how much mitigation to allow Ford in matters beyond his control. Kyle Eastmond’s rib injury deprived him of his customary extra pair of eyes and ears, hard though Ollie Devoto tried to plug the gap opposite Toulouse’s virtuoso string-pullers, Toby Flood and Luke McAlister.

There was also Bath’s utterly callow back row, covering for five absent forwards against a Toulouse pack of überluminaries: Thierry Dusautoir, Louis Picamoles, Imanol Harinordoquy et al. For Bath to fight to within a kick of victory, while losing the try count three to one, was certainly a tick in the team box. Flood called Bath’s strength in depth “scary” for the rest of the Premiership, noting the staggering obduracy of Charlie Ewels, a second row in England’s Under-20s Junior World Championship-winning team during the summer, who was at No 8 for his first Bath start.

Flood has been there, done that, internationally, with 60 England caps, and Ford was once his understudy at Leicester. Speaking as a relieved man after Toulouse’s upsurge in form – four straight wins, whereas Bath have lost four in five, including both their opening European pool matches – Flood urged England to give Ford his head.

“I’m quite pleased I’ve left the battle for the England 10 jersey because there’s talent everywhere,” Flood said. “To not have Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani in the England squad shows the quality and ability they have. For Stuart [Lancaster] it’s a head-scratcher. But what’s the worst that could happen [with Ford]? If he comes on, turns the ball over a couple of times, and England lose a game in the autumn or we don’t win a Grand Slam in the Six Nations, is his or a young No 10’s learning curve more important than England’s learning curve? If you’re saying George is going to be an England fly-half for the next seven years, do you say it’s worth him learning the hard way, and take the gamble?

“For me it’s not really a gamble. Sometimes as a fly-half when you don’t have control, you don’t have go-forward, it is a difficult day at the office. George has shown he can control that. He’s really grown out of the stage when he was 19 years old at Leicester, putting so much pressure on himself to be perfect all the time. He’s governed his own head and feels as if he can make a couple of mistakes, shrug his shoulders and get on with it.”

It was a match that tested opinion all over. Was Maxime Médard’s failed late attempt to create a bonus-point try a delightful heads-up foray, or a silly ignorance of the percentage play? Whatever, Bath salvaged a point with Ross Batty’s score from a line-out drive but they are playing European catch-up now: Toulouse with two wins meet the similarly well-off pool leaders Glasgow twice in December, while Bath will face the twice-defeated Montpellier at around the time the Rec club’s rugby league convert Sam Burgess expects to be fit after surgery on his fractured cheekbone.

Interviewed in Australia a few days ago, Burgess, who will have an introductory press conference in Bath this Thursday, said the original plan was for him to have played against Toulouse. The implication is that Bath are expecting the NRL Grand Final hero to make an almost immediate adjustment to rugby union.