Brian Ashton: Ford's focus can drive the Tigers to title success

Tackling The Issues

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The Independent Online

What a remarkable Premier League weekend. Could Shakespeare himself have concocted a more compelling piece of theatre? As I switched from channel to channel, the excitement and drama built, the odds swinging one way and then the other. And in the midst of it all, I suppose it was inevitable that a character as colourful and controversial as Joey Barton would play a significant role in cranking up the pressure. All this... and no play-offs!

The previous day, the top four teams from the oval-ball version had been involved in big semi-final productions. This end-of-campaign knock-out mechanism originated, I believe, in American football and made its way through Australian rugby league and its counterpart here before working its way into the union code, where the financial gurus were only too keen to climb aboard the bandwagon. I dare say that for the coaches, players and supporters of clubs who fail to finish at the top of the league, this has been a welcome bonus. Is it really fair, though? That's another matter.

To some extent at least, justice has been served in that the teams finishing first and second in the table will contest the final at Twickenham next weekend. The most frequently asked question at the moment is of the "will he, won't he?" kind and it concerns Toby Flood. Does everything depend on the Leicester outside-half recovering from his ankle injury in time to face Harlequins? Might the Tigers have a viable alternative if he is declared unfit?

I am referring, of course, to the teenager George Ford, the International Rugby Board's Young Player of the Year who, despite his comparatively diminutive size, made a large-scale contribution in helping Leicester beat Saracens at Welford Road, thereby avenging a heavy home defeat earlier in the season – not to mention the narrow loss to the same opponents in last year's final.

At this point, I must say that by making it through to Twickenham once again (eight years in succession now) Leicester have achieved something remarkable. It is a real testament to the character and resilience of the Midlands club that in a season of World Cup disruption – they lost a number of players to that tournament and stuttered badly during it – they succeeded not only in putting those early problems behind them but also rose above ridiculous and ill-informed speculation over the position of their ebullient director of rugby, Richard Cockerill.

When the World Cup absentees returned and the injury situation improved, the Tigers put together a game that made them the form team over the last third of the season. They have entertained us with the variety and, at times, the speculative nature of their rugby. Whoever said entertainment and winning cannot travel together as close and welcome companions?

Returning to Ford for a moment, I see in him a player blessed with a genuine feel for the dynamics of the game. I had the brief pleasure of coaching him last year, while running a demonstration for Premiership academy managers at Welford Road. I had the gut feeling that here was someone special. I was genuinely surprised by his ability to recreate order from the chaos I had deliberately generated. His understanding of what makes a game of rugby function was good and his ability to translate that into action and communicate it to his team-mates marked him out as a leader, which is precisely what you need in a No 10.

Leicester have been criticised in some quarters for not exposing him more to the Premiership this season, but I believe their sensitive and intelligent handling of a highly promising but very young player has been vindicated. Yet circumstances dictate that there is another "will he, won't he" puzzle before us. Is Ford about to play the biggest game of his career, against Quins in front of 80,000-plus spectators? We shall see.

Before we're given an answer to that question, there is the small matter of Europe to consider, with two Irish sides, Leinster and Ulster, engaging at Twickenham today to determine the outcome of the Heineken Cup. It seems there is a general leaning towards the Dubliners, who are seeking to become the first team in a decade to make a successful defence of the title, but to my mind some people are being far too dismissive of the side from the north of the island.

Ulster have had great success this year – success forged in the fires of adversity – and they will not turn up with the intention of playing second fiddle. They qualified from a group including Leicester and the dauntingly powerful Clermont Auvergne, and they then had to battle for their lives against Munster at Thomond Park. And while all this was going on, the powers that be in Belfast were deciding, for reasons best known to themselves, that the coach Brian McLaughlin would be surplus to first-team requirements next season. Might it be that the situation surrounding McLaughlin will be one of the intangibles tipping the balance this evening?

They rely heavily on southern-hemisphere experience and, in particular, on a small coterie of South Africans who bring a certain physicality to the mix – an aspect of rugby that has always sat comfortably with the Ulster approach. One of those Springbok types is their guiding light. I've written previously about the scrum-half Ruan Pienaar, so I will restrict myself to saying that the Leinster back-rowers must limit his opportunities to orchestrate the game. In the nicest possible way, naturally.

In return, the Ulstermen will look to bundle the champions out of their stride by playing a destructive game up front, thereby breaking the link at half-back, isolating the Leinster orchestrator, Jonathan Sexton, and minimising the threat posed by that talismanic warrior in the Dubliners' midfield, Brian O'Driscoll. But Leinster have some pretty tough nuts too: men like the youthful 38-year-old All Black lock Brad Thorn and the much under-rated Leo Cullen take a lot of cracking. If they and their fellow tight forwards can put the back-rowers on the front foot, and if the coach Joe Schmidt continues to encourage Sexton to play what he sees from all parts of the field, we'll be in for a rousing finale to the European season.

For all Ulster's remarkable defensive efforts in keeping out a largely one-dimensional Munster at the quarter-final stage, I'm taking Leinster to win sufficient front-foot ball to pose a much wider range of questions. Indeed, I take them to win. But it will be close. Real close.

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