George Ford driven to overtake Jonathan Sexton on the outside

Experience of practising with Irish greats can help Bath and England man to get the better of Europe’s best – and move ahead of him in the Lions pecking order

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The Independent Online

George Ford spent a good deal of his rugby infancy exchanging training field kicks with leading outside-halves of the Irish variety, Ronan O’Gara and David Humphreys among them, so there will be a certain sweet symmetry about life in the union game if he grows up as an international No 10 by out-thinking and outperforming the current green-shirted master craftsman, Jonathan Sexton, in Dublin this weekend.

The two men could find themselves disputing the Lions Test shirt in New Zealand in two years’ time, so this is a good moment for Ford to get his retaliation in first.

The youngster from Oldham had a privileged upbringing in the game: his father Mike, a professional rugby league player with more clubs than is proper to mention in polite society, joined Ireland as defence co-ordinator in 2002. “We went over there quite a bit to watch the international matches, and always went to the England-Ireland ones at Twickenham,” Ford said this week. “Me and my brothers, we always wanted the best for Dad, although the England games were a bit different.

“After one match, I went into the Ireland dressing room and came away with Peter Stringer’s shirt. It actually fit me, he was that small. I can still get into it now.”

Ford and Stringer, the longest-serving as well as the tiniest of Test-class scrum-halves, now play together at Bath, where Mike Ford runs the show, with occasional assistance from the ultra-ambitious owner, Bruce Craig. But the No 10s were the players who really interested Ford Jnr.

“O’Gara and the others were good with us,” he recalled. “They’d be doing their kicking practice and they’d let us bang the balls back to them. It was brilliant, having that experience as a kid.”

Sexton’s marksmanship is up there in the O’Gara class, although he has yet to develop the Munsterman’s cruel streak when it comes to knocking over last-minute drop goals. But Ford, a fine kicker if not yet a metronomic one, admires other aspects of the Dubliner’s game and expects to be tested to the limit in six days’ time, when England’s hopes of a Six Nations Grand Slam in World Cup year – and, indeed, Ireland’s – will be on the line.

“He’s an outstanding player,” Ford said of his opposite number, showing no desire to dispute the notion that, as things stand, Sexton is far and away the leading outside-half in European rugby.

“You saw it when Ireland played France. To come back after 12 weeks out of the game and perform as he did… you have to be very smart to do that. He has such a good rugby brain, but he also has the hunger and desire that helps him drive his team forward.

“There again, it’s not all about stopping Jonny Sexton. I saw Owen Farrell at the Saracens-Bath game the other day and we had a good chat afterwards about a number of things to do with Ireland.

“He knows quite a lot of the Irish guys from the last Lions tour and he told me all about the emotion they bring to a game. It’s the thing that helps them get into a match, especially at the breakdown, where they’re unbelievably physical. People like Rory Best and Sean O’Brien are fantastic over the ball. The tackle area is a massive thing for them.

“But then, I saw something of that in age-group rugby. I remember playing over there on a Friday night for England Under-20s and it was really hard. We had a seriously good team – Owen was there, and Jonathan Joseph and Joe Launchbury – yet even though we won in the end, it was a struggle.”

That should concentrate a few minds. The players Ford failed to mention included Mako Vunipola, the current England prop, the open-side flanker Matt Kvesic and ambitious Premiership regulars Elliot Daly, the Wasps centre, and the Harlequins lock Charlie Matthews.

Four consecutive starts in the red-rose driving seat have left Ford feeling “comfortable and confident”. For a player who thrives on continuity – he left Leicester for Bath because he knew he could not hope to break into international rugby as an occasional bit-part player – a proper run in the side is not so much desirable as essential. Which is not to say that Ford feels safe and secure as a first-choice England player.

“As soon as you start thinking like that, you’ll come to grief,” he commented.

As a means of strengthening his grip on the position, he is working on broadening his range, tactically as well as skills-wise. You can see why.

England’s centre partnership is still in a state of flux, with half a dozen contenders in the mix, each radically different in style from the rest. It would be enough to make a weak outside-half weep for his own sanity, yet Ford believes he can change the shape of his game to suit the prevailing conditions.

“You have to get the best out of the players you’re with, so yes, you tailor your approach to each game on that basis,” he said.

“If I’m playing with Luther Burrell, a big physical presence, I need to give him early ball so he can take us over the gain line. With Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, players with all the footwork and who use those skills to get them through the line, you take the ball up further to give them a chance of beating a man.”

All of which sounds rather thrilling, suggesting as it does a commitment to an attacking approach that has not always been evident in England’s rugby down the years.

“It goes without saying that when we get to Ireland we’ll look to do the right things in the right parts of the field,” Ford said, patently aware that Dublin is just about the worst union town on the planet to play an “away with the fairies” style of rugby.

“But while we don’t think it will be a 10-try game, we want to use the attacking weapons we know we possess to give our running backs a chance to show what they can do. Yes, I watched Jonny Wilkinson and Danny Carter playing the outside-half role when I was young. However, I also liked the Aussies because of their attacking mindset. People like Matt Giteau excited me.”

Half Wilkinson and half Giteau? If Ford can pull that one off, Mr Sexton may find himself playing second fiddle in All Black country in 2017.