George Ford puts his foot down to steer Tigers past Saracens
Leicester Tigers 24 Saracens 15
There are two versions of the story surrounding the appearance of George Ford in the Leicester team: either he was summoned an hour before kick-off when the Tigers were forced to concede that Toby Flood's recovery from an ankle injury was not quite complete, or he was told a couple of days before the game and made the mistake of mentioning it to his dad Mike, the former England defence coach, who promptly blabbed to the media and earned the lad a 12-bore rollicking from the Welford Road hierarchy. You pays your money and you takes your choice.
Happily for the 19-year-old outside-half, blessed with a Wilkinson-esque boot and an ice cube in the part of the brain where most players have a panic button, there is only one version of what happened next. "I'd say the future was bright for him," said Geordan Murphy, the Leicester captain, after leading the Midlanders into an eighth successive Premiership final, "but as he's here now, it's more accurate to say that the present is bright. Yes, he's young, but he's prepared to speak up in the changing room and when he does, people listen to him. He's played like that every time he's been in the side."
Ford kicked 14 points, far from negligible in a semi-final as bitterly fought as this one, and as a dozen of them were from distances of 45 metres-plus, it is reasonable to predict, even at this early stage in the teenager's career, that he will develop into one hell of a marksman. As he also left the England stand-off Charlie Hodgson clutching unwelcome handfuls of fresh Leicester air with an open-field break that led to Steve Mafi's try early in the second half – a try that opened up a six-point lead, just about the equivalent of a king's ransom under these circumstances – he could be well satisfied with his afternoon's work.
"I won't stand here and lie to you: I was nervous before the start," Ford said, an hour or so after helping relieve Saracens of their national title. If so, he was successful in concealing the fact from a raucous, riotous audience of well over 20,000. Some might point out that when a young No 10 finds himself stationed between a pug-ugly Leicester pack in full warpaint and two bristlingly aggressive members of the Tuilagi family, he is hardly being asked to perform without a safety net. All the same, playing outside-half in a game of such magnitude always has something of the high-wire act about it, and with Saracens hell-bent on knocking him off-balance, his sure-footedness bordered on the miraculous.
His contest with Owen Farrell, a mere 18 months his senior but something of a wizened greybeard by comparison, was compelling. The two played together, highly successfully, at England age-group level – Ford at outside-half, Farrell at centre – and both were central figures here, their kicking skills tested to the limit. Farrell, whose three-and-a-half step approach is invariably accompanied by a couple of eerily conspiratorial, almost guilty glances at the posts, accumulated most of his points from long range and missed only once. Ford, who moves towards the ball on tiptoe, fluffed a couple of shots, but by bouncing a penalty off the crossbar from a position two metres inside the Leicester half, he issued a timely warning to Saracens that any desperate late transgressions in their own territory were likely to prove terminal.
If Farrell, a true warrior spirit, was stronger at close quarters – only Mafi, the Tongan flanker who smithereened just about every Saracen on the field in another outstanding performance, broke him in the tackle – there was nothing much wrong with Ford's defence. Might his father have had something to do with it? "We've talked it through over the years," Ford Jr said. "But he'll be coaching Bath next season, won't he? When we play them, he won't be my dad any more. Not 'til the game's over."
The one thing Farrell did not have was the reassuring support of a first-choice back row and ultimately, it was this that cost Saracens their crown. Long-term injuries to the Scottish international Kelly Brown, the ferocious one-man-team Namibian forward Jacques Burger and the high-octane breakaway specialist Andy Saull left the visitors light in a crucial area, and Mafi, together with the ever-effective Craig Newby, took full advantage. It was no pushover by any manner of means: Jackson Wray and Will Fraser were breathlessly energetic and impressively resilient. But their opponents knew just a little too much.
With Saracens dominating the first half territorially, partly because they had the benefit of a stiff breeze and partly because Steve Borthwick ran the line-out show with customary expertise, Leicester were grateful for Alesana Tuilagi's opening try – a switch-run finish against the grain, set up by Mafi's alert rescuing of the ball after a duff throw from the hooker George Chuter. And it was Mafi who claimed the decisive score after Ford's break past Hodgson and a comical, if painful, incident in which Alex Goode and Mouritz Botha knocked each other into la-la land in a frantic attempt to halt the younger Tuilagi, cuddly little Manu, as he stampeded towards the line.
When it comes to the final against Harlequins in 12 days' time, there will be no doubt in the mind of Richard Cockerill, the Leicester head coach. "If he's fit, Toby Flood starts," he pronounced. "George Ford is a talented young player and he did some great things out there. He also made some errors, as he was bound to do. We want to handle this the Leicester way: get him playing two or three games in a winning environment while developing him in training. That's why he's not touring anywhere this summer. He's never going to be the biggest, so he needs to do some quality conditioning work while he has the chance.
"If he kicks on again next season, as I think he will, he'll never get an off-season again."
Scorers: Leicester: Tries: A Tuilagi, Mafi. Conversion: Ford. Penalties: Ford 4. Saracens: Penalties: Farrell 5.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); H Agulla, M Tuilagi, A Allen, A Tuilagi; G Ford, B Youngs; M Ayerza, G Chuter, D Cole (M Castrogiovanni 59), G Skivington, G Parling, S Mafi, C Newby, T Waldrom.
Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle (J Short 65), O Farrell, B Barritt (A Powell 77), C Wyles; C Hodgson, N De Kock (R Wigglesworth 53); R Gill (J Smit 77), S Brits (J George 77), M Stevens (C Nieto 60-73), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (G Kruis 48), J Wray (H Vyvyan 78), W Fraser, E Joubert.
Referee: D Pearson (Northumberland).
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