There are very few positions in international team sport, that drums up more discussion than the fly half of England’s rugby team. An ever-spinning cycle of selection sagas, the white jersey with ’10’ on the back and a rose on the front, has been put through the wringer in a turbulent past year.
Perhaps the last time the England fly half spot was safe and secured, was when Jonny Wilkinson was at the mantle and led the nation to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003. When Wilkinson retired from the test match scene in 2011, it opened the door for a power struggle of world class halfbacks, as the likes of Toby Flood, Owen Farrell and George Ford all wrestled for the starting spot.
As the years went bye, and the eras past through Stuart Lancaster, Eddie Jones and finally to Steve Borthwick, Owen Farrell and George Ford emerged as the two top contenders for the fly half jersey. Yet it was Farrell who’s grip held firmest on the kicking tee, and would lead England through Six Nations, Summer Tours, Autumn Internationals and three Rugby World Cups in 2015, 2019 and 2023.
Ford was often the proverbial ‘fall guy’, who would often be cased aside in favour of the long serving Saracen. Ford would sometimes receive a shot at the starting fly half spot, yet this would often co-incide with ‘Faz’ covering across the centres, following a midfield vacancy. Ford was rarely chosen directly ahead of Farrell, however now, Owen is out of the England camp and Ford rules the roost.
Farrell decided to step away from England duties, with his upcoming Parisian transfer lining him up for a future at Racing 92. Further fly half contention has been thinned, through Marcus Smith’s potentially tournament ending calf injury, with the door finally now wide open for Ford to take centre stage. Ford spoke poignantly about the hardships he repeatedly faced as he was cut from the England side, time and time again.
“The first thing I would say is that I go through all the emotions, I have been through all the emotions, frustrated, disappointed, gutted, angry and you do because it means a lot to you and you are going to have the emotions. But what these experiences have done, because it has obviously happened a few times, is it allows you deal with those moments a bit better and stay a little bit neutral about it.
“Maybe when I was younger, you are starting and playing every week, and you get dropped and you are rock bottom and it is a roller coaster ride. Whereas now, you still go through the emotions, angry, gutted and all them, but it is how quickly you can get back to accepting whatever that role is how well can I do it? And always backing myself, always to go out there and keep getting better and to get another opportunity if that did happen. It is a belief and a consistency and a thing I want to go and try and do every day and I would always back myself to do that as well.”
“It has happened a few times (low points). I suppose maybe the one I didn’t deal with the best was when I was younger. I probably didn’t deal with that first game of the 2015 World Cup, I think that was just because it was such a new experience for me. We had a World Cup in England, this massive thing, you play the first game of the World Cup on a Friday night and you win with a bonus point and then things change the week after (dropped for Owen Farrell). I think it was just me, being a bit younger and not having experienced it before.”
Whether Ford starts in the 10 shirt, or takes the 22 jersey amongst the replacements, the conversation remains the same. The fly half opened up about how he has long learned to tune out the external noise, that would reach a crescendo as England fans gaze upon who’s been picked at fly half. The endless cycle goes on now focussing on Ford and Fin Smith, yet Ford remembers the time of his father’s teachings, to help remain strong and block out the distractions.
“One thing I know since making my debut for England, the one constant and consistent thing is the debate around who plays number 10 for England. Even before I came into the England set-up, my Dad was coaching and it was exactly the same thing. It’s always been the case, for whatever reason. I’m not sure why. You become used to the exterior noise.
“Everyone’s got their opinion on who should play and the way England should play. All I can do as an individual is try as well as I can. If I get an opportunity to start, my job is to lead and play as well as I can to make sure we try and win games.
“If I focussed on anything other than that, on what other people think, then that takes my concentration down a different path. I don’t want to do that. I make all the choices I do to be the best player I can be to go and do the best job for England. If some people agree, or don’t, on who should be playing for England, for me that’s massively irrelevant.”
Fly halves face a career long battle, in having to stand up and be ‘the guy’. At club level, Ford has long been the first choice for the 10 jersey, be it in Bath’s blue, black and white, the green of Leicester or the navy grey colourings of his current Sale Sharks. Ford kept Freddie Burns at bay during his time at the Tigers, with Burns’ Premiership winning drop goal only coming to fruition thanks to an unfortunate knee injury suffered by Ford.
The 30-year-old knows all too well how brutal it is to be a fly half. Despite frequently sitting at the top of his club’s two-rung pecking order, Ford has struggled to transfer momentum into the starting England jersey. The fly half recognised the ruthlessness of the position, and likened it to being a quarter-back in American football. Speaking on how he continully pushes on despite the set-backs, Ford said;
“Maybe I should have played scrum-half. I suppose it is like quarter-back in the NFL, the responsibility that comes with it. There is a spot to start and a spot on the bench and it is as clear as that isn’t it really? What it does do, is it heightens your awareness to prepare, to perform, of course it does.
“You know you are a critical and crucial part of the team when you are in that and you know it can very quickly change and that keeps your head, keeps you wanting to come back and improve and when you do not play as well as you like, and you are not in good form, and you don’t get the spot, then it is in those moments that really test you and show you who you are as a person.
“When you are not the man, and you have a set back, in that real moment you have got a decision to make here, do you throw your toys out of the pram a little bit, or do I actually say ‘stuff this’ and come back better from it.”
“I feel like I’m continually improving. But having said that I know there’s a lot more in me as well, in certain aspects of my game, which I’m working hard on. I think that’ll always be the case. As soon as you think you’ve nailed it or cracked it that’s when you get caught out, isn’t it? It’s been a consistent thing of mine to keep finding little areas or parts of my game. It’s great to have someone like Felix (Jones) coming in from a defensive point of view. He’s obviously coached a different system and coached different players. That gives you a new lease of life, reinvigorates you and makes you wan to get better defensively.”
With his head now high above the parapet, Ford found out that is as lonely at the top as they say. With no Farrell and Marcus Smith in the England camp, the Sale man is the immediate first choice to lead England’s back-line through the 2024 Six Nations. With protege fly half Fin Smith in-tow, Ford admits that there is a different feel around Pennyhill Park, that has been brought about by the absence of the soon to be former Saracen. Speaking on the atmosphere without Owen Farrell, Ford said;
“It is different. He has been here for so long, he has been such an integral part, he has been our captain, he has been a massive leader for us and he stamps his authority on our team. So him not being here, of course it is different, but there is always a time when things change and I think for us, for me and other leaders, it is maybe not to try and replicate what it was like with him here but be a bit more authentic with it and I think Jamie (George) has done that brilliantly.
“The first day at camp, and he is not here, initially it is a bit strange because he is rugby-mad, and he is rugby-obsessed, and a lot of the conversations me and him would have would be about rugby, the game at the weekend, about training, about the game the previous night. Having said that, Marcus and Fin are rugby-mad as well so you grow a relationship with those guys as well.”
“Those lads are pretty obsessed with the game and they won’t miss a beat. For example, in the first round when the first game was on France v Ireland on Friday night, everyone was glued to the TV and chatting away and next morning for breakfast everyone was talking, it is pretty cool to be around.”
Looking back to England past successes, their most recent Six Nations Grand Slam actually featured the Ford-Farrell axis across fly half and inside centre. Looking back to 2016, and the duo worked seemlessly across the first and second receiver channels. This combination was revived by Eddie Jones for the latter stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which saw England record immense knock-out stage victories against the Wallabies and All Blacks.
Speaking on his past on-field partnership with Farrell, Ford expressed how the World Cup campaign was great to be apart of in Japan. The Sale Sharks’ playmaker highlighted how both he and Farrell had Jones’ backing for the tournament, which saw them return to Twickenham with silver medals.
“As a 10, you do benefit from playing and having a run week in, week out, of course you do. What has gone on in the past, a coach selects a team and always selects a team that he feels will be the best team to win that game at the weekend and that is their job, that is why they are in that role, and a lot of that is out of our control a little bit.
“Because you have such amazing players in the 10 position there has been a fair amount of swapping and changing but we have had a lot of success along the way as well which has been great. Whether that is I have been starting or Owen has been starting, we have had some great times as well. The one in 2019, the quarter-final, Australia, where I was on the bench and Owen started, we had a plan for that game and it worked unbelievably well. Then we end up playing together in the semi-final. It is not all negative when you back the coach and you back your role in that.”
Looking to the future of England’s fly half jersey, and Ford recognised the talent that Fin Smith is set to bring to the future role. He has been abundantly impressed by the progression of the Northampton man’s with the seven Saints in the England camp reminding Ford of his days as the crown jewel of the English West country.
“What you see with these young lads coming through now is so much energy and confidence and enjoyment in what they do and maybe that has probably changed a little bit. Maybe when we came through at 19-20 I think there is this energy and attitude but these lads probably look they enjoy it a lot more than we potentially did. I am not saying we didn’t enjoy it, but they just love the games.
“All them Northampton lads coming in here together and playing together, it reminds me of when I was at Bath and we had Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph and we were all coming in together. In terms of that, you don’t need to say anything to them. They don’t look too nervous, they don’t look too anxious, they are loving every second of it.”
“The one thing us leaders have tried to pass on to them is just the nature of Test rugby and it is a massive step up from Premiership rugby. The contest of the game and the moments that happen in games, for example, the two tries we conceded in Italy last week in the first half, which could have been a bit of a shock moment, we are under our sticks and we are 17-8 down this shouldn’t be happening.
“How we can you deal with those moments at the highest level? So that is what we have tried to pass on as more experienced lads, it is ‘it is ok lads, let’s be calm, let’s be clear, there are still 55 minutes of this game left and this is what we need to do’. Obviously because they are pretty new to that, that is what we have tried to pass on.”
Turning his attention to the task at hand this weekend, Ford will go tee-to-tee with Wales newcomer Ioan Llyod. Drafted in ahead of Sam Costelow, Lloyd and Ford have previously crossed paths in the Premiership, and the England fly half was certainly impressed with the versatility of the Scarlets man.
“Yeah, obviously when he was at Bristol (played against him). He probably played a bit more at 15 and on the wing, but I think I have played when he’s dropped in at 10 as well. He’s a dangerous player and a good runner. He can create something out of nothing, as you saw in the second half last week (against Scotland).
“He made that team tick in the way he played. Yeah, he’s dangerous. As always you want to put pressure on their nine and 10 but it’s never in isolation, there’s many other threats around. Of course we want to try and put them under pressure, one of the main things for a nine and 10, is that if you control momentum and their speed of ball it becomes a bit more difficult for the opposition half-backs. We’ll be going after that I suppose.”
Ford closed out the discussion by analysing the bizarre ongoings at the Principality Stadium, which saw Wales return fire on Scotland to narrow a 27-0 deficit to just one point. Ford and his England teammates spent a good deal of time reviewing the 27-26 result, and the fly half broke down the main learnings from the match.
“We probably saw the better version (of Wales) in the second half, didn’t we? The one thing it showed is that Wales don’t stop, they never give up. No matter what the scoreline is they’re always playing until the very end. That makes them dangerous. They won’t be happy with that first half. If I was to put ourselves in their shoes you’d be doing everything possible to make sure you start the game miles better. We’ve got to be ready for the best version of them from the start. As they showed in the second half that’s how dangerous they can be.
“Sometimes the situation of the game makes you play at a better intensity. If you’re down on the scoreboard it sort of frees you up in a funny sort of way. Sometimes it’s experiences like that that make you realise what it feels like to be like that. And why can’t you be like that regardless of the scoreboard?
“That’s why I think this week is huge for us at the start of the game. I reckon Wales will have taken an awful lot from that game, in terms of the intensity they want to play at and how different it probably felt in the second half compared to the first. Maybe they could play a bit freer, maybe they had to take more risks. Off the back of that they probably enjoyed it a bit more and posed Scotland a lot of problems. I think they’ll be taking that approach against us this week.”