Rugby World Cup 2019: Why George Ford may prove to be England’s most important player in Japan

A testing year at Leicester Tigers has matured Ford into not only a leader on the field but a general off it, with England set to reap the rewards when it matters most

Jack de Menezes
Monday 12 August 2019 10:00
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History tells us that back-up fly-halves are among the most useful and important players of a Rugby World Cup squad. Everyone who has followed rugby over the last decade is familiar with the Stephen Donald story, when the Waikato fly-half was called up as fourth choice to win the World Cup for the All Blacks just 12 months after he was castigated and exiled for costing them the Bledisloe Cup clash against Australia.

It is one of Eddie Jones’ favourite tales to tell when discussing selection - particularly when answering the constant questions surrounding Danny Cipriani - and proves a reminder to those outside the squad that they can be just as important as those in it, should fate fall in their favour.

That resonates within the current England squad none more than with George Ford, the captain of yesterday’s experimental side that defeated a full-strength Wales so impressively. Ford may be certain to go to Japan as Owen Farrell’s understudy, but he is exactly that - Owen Farrell’s understudy.

Where Farrell and Ford used to play side-by-side, Jones now has Manu Tuilagi and Ben Te’o to choose from, the impact 12s he has long craved for. The likelihood is that Ford will play the support role, and start at least one match in the form of either the first or second pool game - probably the second against Tonga - and possibly two if England seal their place in the last eight with a game to spare, unless injury interferes.

Yet it has also been Ford who over the course of the last week has impressed so much. The 26-year-old has been forced to mature a lot over the last 12 months, mainly due to the responsibility piled onto his shoulders at Leicester where he was one of the few bright lights in their darkest season, and it’s clear now that England are reaping the rewards of that development.

Ford spoke confidently yet calmly at Friday’s team selection, where it was left to him to do the talking thanks to Jones’ no-show on announcement day and the assistant coaches’ defiance at giving nothing away. Having just seen the Wales teamsheet announced exactly the same time as England’s, it would have been easy for Ford to be a tad flustered at the strength of squad that his side would be facing at the weekend.

But when asked by The Independent whether he considered England underdogs, Ford did not take a backwards step. “There’s going to be periods in the game where it might be going anything but brilliantly, but we’ve got to find a way to stick in there together, find a way to get the momentum back in the game or counteract whatever Wales are going to throw at us and I think if we do that we’ll be in with a chance.”

And he was right. England scrummaged brilliantly, hit their lineouts, missed fewer tackles and conceded fewer turnovers, and by doing the basics well, they gave themselves a chance. Speaking afterwards, Ford was very clear in what the victory came down to: doing the basics well. But it was Jones’ words that rang loudest.

“(He was) really good. I thought the whole leadership of the team was very calm and composed,” said Jones. “They worked out what we needed to do because we went through that period where we gave four penalties away and our response to that was excellent.

“It means we’ve learned a little bit from the Six Nations where we let ourselves down a little bit in that area, so that was pleasing for us.”

Ford lead England to victory over Wales with an impressive showing on and off the field

Following Wyn Jones’ try that closed the gap to five points at 24-19, it was Ford who kept the players behind the posts that few seconds longer to take the sting out of the game, and it was Ford who sent the restart deep to challenge Wales to go the length if they wanted to lead the match. A handful of minutes late, Ford beat Wyn Jones on the outside shoulder, received a face-full of Aled Davies’ shoulder after being tackled and kicked the ensuing penalty that not only stretched the lead to eight points, but ended Wales’ scoring for the day.

It was his calm approach through all of this that really stood out, and explains why England fans should not worry if they suffer their 2011 Dan Carter moment and Farrell suddenly becomes unavailable.

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