‘When I was younger … you get overwhelmed, you hit rock bottom and it’s a rollercoaster ride,’ says George Ford.Photo: Dan Mullan/RFU Collection/Getty Images
The players’ shirts may have names printed on them today but the No 10 jersey still has a special resonance when England play Wales in rugby union. For better or worse, the occupiers have more national expectations than anyone else. It is not only the Welsh semi-conductors who operate in the shadow of old legends and feel the gray hand of history on their shoulders.
George Ford is a great example. This is his 93rd cap for England but, even now, there is little sense of him trying to secure a regular starting place. It’s always been that way: after his masterclass against Argentina in last year’s World Cup, the rapidly returning Owen Farrell has gone off the pace and the Smiths, Marcus and Fin are floundering. heel now. As the Sale pivot said this week: “Maybe I should be playing halfback.”
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This weekend, however, he is well and truly center stage. No Owen, no Marcus, but a consummate pro whose Test career has incorporated plenty of England-Wales matches. He made his senior debut in this game ten years ago before dropping to the bench in frustration for the decisive pool game of the 2015 World Cup – “Maybe one I haven’t dealt with the best” – the year next. Cool goal-kicking display under Cardiff’s Friday night lights in February 2015, assist role in Elliot Daly’s late match-winning effort in 2017 … with 11 wins and three defeats against Wales the good days more comfortably than the bad.
That said, it has rarely been a simple selection journey. “I’ve gone through all the emotions: frustrated, disappointed, stuck, angry. When I was younger … you get overwhelmed, you hit rock bottom and it’s a rollercoaster ride. Whereas now, you still go through the same emotions but it’s about how quickly you can get back to accepting your role. When you don’t play as well as you want, you’re not in good form and you don’t get the spot… those are the moments that really test you and show you who you are. Do you throw your toys out of the pram or do you think, ‘No, this is stuff’ and come back better from it?”
In addition to the importance of supporting himself, he also realized a long time ago that it was difficult to worry about others. “Since I first started, the only constant and consistent thing has been the debate about who plays No. 10 for England. Even before I came into the England set-up … my dad was coaching and it was just the same. It’s always been the case…not sure why. Everyone has their opinion about who should play and the way England should play. You get used to the noise outside.”
There’s still plenty around. Ford and Farrell were childhood teammates and few can better empathize with the mental pressures that drove them to quit the national side. For Ford he is used to sharing such things. “If I focus on what other people think then I go in a different direction. I don’t want to do that. If some people agree – or don’t – about who should be playing for England, that’s really irrelevant to me.”
There is no question, however, that the dynamic within this England squad has changed in Farrell’s absence. There is certainly a collective effort to speculate a bit more, even if the wet weather forecast is accurate, with a glimpse of a brighter outlook evident during last week’s win in Rome. “I was telling him [attack coach] Richard Wigglesworth that the pitch in training, and in the Italy game when we had the ball, felt like chalk and cheese compared to what it might have been a few months ago,” asserts Ford. “We want to be a dangerous team with the ball in hand. We made a good start last week and now we want to maintain that intention and improve our execution. There are only five games in the Six Nations … you want to make sure there is a quick improvement. We want to improve again this week because, basically, we have to do that.”
Ford, however, believes his best rugby is ahead of him. He also knows that if he wants to stop the talented Smiths he has to step up quickly in Farrell’s absence. “It’s different … Owen has been a huge leader for us and he puts his authority on our team. But there is always a time when things change. I think, for me and for the other leaders, maybe [better] not trying to replicate how it was with him here and be a little more authentic. I know there is a lot more in me, in certain aspects of my game, which I am working hard on. I think that will always be the case. As soon as you think you’ve nailed it or cracked it, that’s when you’re caught out.”
It could have been a lively contest if Wales came out to play like they did in the second half against Scotland. Ford, for one, is wary of what could happen. “That’s how dangerous they can be. That’s why I think this week is a huge start for us. I think Wales will have taken a lot from the Scotland game, in terms of the intensity with which they want to play and how different it probably felt in the second half compared to the first game. I think they will be taking that approach against us.”
Now 30 years old and a likely coach of the future, Ford is well aware that his input and that of his fellow youngster, Ioan Lloyd, will depend heavily on the speed of the ruckball generated in front of them. If that leaves Wales boss Tommy Reffell with the potential to be the main man on either side, it will be mainly up to Ford to dominate England’s tactical game and, in Farrell’s absence, all the goals -important to kick.
Step forward, therefore, the men who were wearing No. 10. Although Ford never met the late Barry John – “Obviously I’ve seen footage and I know what a legend of the game he was and what he did for Wales in that No 10 shirt” – understands Warren Gatland’s team will be very motivated. “When something like that happens the whole nation becomes a little bit more taken aback.” England should win but not if they sit back and wait for it to happen.