Never go back, the saying goes, although George Ford’s return to his first senior club Leicester after four years away at Bath is in a different bracket to, say, Floyd Mayweather emerging from retirement to cash in against Conor McGregor, or Jose Mourinho and Wayne Rooney resuming their careers at Chelsea and Everton respectively.
Ford was always an early developer, having been tipped for high honours since his early teens, but he was far from a fully-formed fly-half when he quit Leicester for Bath as an as yet uncapped 20-year-old in 2013, to join his father Mike, the then head coach at The Rec.
Now Ford junior is a Tiger again, with 37 England caps to his name and a lofty status that obliged Leicester to fork out cash in addition to the swap of Freddie Burns to Bath to secure his signing. Ford is expected to bring commanding maturity to a Tigers backline that, on paper, reads like a Barbarians who’s who of all the talents, as he makes his Premiership re-appearance in the Leicester green, red and white against – guess who? – Bath at Welford Road on Sunday.
“George has slotted in like he’s never been away,” says Ben Youngs, the 27-year-old Leicester scrum-half whose partnership with Ford has been a feature of England’s back-to-back Six Nations Championship titles in 2016 and 2017.
“He’s a lot more mature, a lot more experienced, and he’s very hungry to contribute and succeed. He doesn’t see it as a stepping stone to England, he sees it as succeeding at Leicester and winning trophies. That’s great and his mindset and attitude is absolutely key to driving this whole club forward.”
Jonny May, the England wing from Gloucester, and Australian Sevens star Nick Malouf have pitched up at Leicester with Ford and his brother Joe to join the fit-again Matt Toomua, Manu Tuilagi, Telusa Veainu and Mat Tait among the backs. And while Leicester fans enjoyed a highly-promising first sight of this spectacular line-up in a 40-14 win over Ospreys in a friendly at Welford Road a week ago, they know the stardust will quickly dissipate if injuries strike as savagely again as they did to Toomua, the graceful Australian playmaker, so soon after his arrival in the summer of 2016.
As for Tuilagi, his painfully regular trips to the treatment table have been accompanied by silly scrapes off the field; most recently an alleged drinking session that saw him and Sale’s Denny Solomona sent home early from an England training camp.
Youngs describes the Toomua-Tuilagi centre combination as looking “lovely” in training, with Toomua’s “subtle touches” rubbing off on his powerfully-built team-mate. “It’s been such a waste of talent for them to be stuck in the stands,” says Young. “All that rehab and hard work, doing countless squats to get their knees right, is paying off.”
Ford himself said a couple of weeks ago that Leicester now have “strong, elusive runners, they are all finishers and they are all eager to get their hands on the ball and have lots of involvement in the game.”
And he asserted that “the game has changed” during his time at Bath. “As a No.10 now, you just can't sit in the pocket and kick corners. You have got to be able to go to the line a little bit, be a threat yourself, put people in space and manage the game. You've got to be strong defensively, and then there are the other bits such as the goal-kicking.”
The latter discipline has been a notorious problem for Ford with England on occasions but a significant improvement came on the tour to Argentina in June, when he slotted kicks from all parts of the field in the two winning Tests in San Juan and Santa Fe, and impressed generally with his controlled excellence in a hostile environment.
“George on that tour was unbelievably mature in the way he went about his business and he kicked unbelievably well,” Youngs says. “It was a monkey off his back, I guess. And in his game management: the drop goal he took in the first Test, just to stretch it, was like a conductor organising an orchestra.”
Youngs and Leicester’s head coach Matt O’Connor – another man in his second stint at the club - shared a knowing chuckle about “a long evening in Bridgend” for Ford, when Leicester lost 46-13 to Ospreys there in an Anglo-Welsh Cup match in November 2010. Then Ford was a 17-year-old hot prospect who would play in the Premiership finals of 2012 and 2013 for Leicester, with one lost and one won.
Neither Leicester nor Bath have taken the Premiership title since then, having been overtaken in the pecking order by Saracens, Exeter and Wasps. So while this weekend’s meeting is a juicy opening fixture, with Burns selected on the bench by Bath, there is a touch of mould gathering on the old rivals’ trophy cabinets.
O’Connor, who succeeded Richard Cockerill and Aaron Mauger in the Leicester upheavals of earlier this year, says he taken necessary action in overhauling the strength and conditioning at Welford Road.
“It’s a very different squad going into the first round to the one that played against Bath at Twickenham in April,” O’Connor says.
“We had gone away from big athletes, and from the collision nature of the sport in this part of the world, and went with more of a running model that for large parts of the season is largely irrelevant. We were coming second in far too many collisions and that has a toll across the 80 minutes. Some of that is conditioning, some of that is personnel. We’ve gone about trying to rectify that in the summer and, fingers crossed, if we can stay fit, we’ll be as good as anyone.”
At the age of 26, Tuilagi can no longer play the role of accident-prone man-child. A hefty clear-out of an Ospreys opponent in that recent friendly showed him on the edge, in a rugby sense, and he must keep the physical side of his game mostly legal if he is to reprise the stunning impact he made for England when he broke into the national team in 2011.
Ford’s vision and sweet distribution may make Tuilagi’s life easier, too. There is so much to look forward to, in Leicester’s journey back to the future.
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