ENGLAND fly-half George Ford is happy to be the standard-bearer for diminutive players in a sport now populated by giants.
Ford’s stature will be placed into sharp perspective when he is targeted by Fiji in tomorrow’s World Cup opener at Twickenham, with 20-stone wing Nemani Nadolo set to be unleashed down his channel.
It will be a test of Ford’s nerve and technique if he is forced to stop a player almost seven stones heavier and eight inches taller, and, as practise for the David v Goliath mismatch, he has been tackling Billy Vunipola and Sam Burgess in training.
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Evidence to support the old adage of a ‘game for all sizes’ may be increasingly hard to find amid the muscle-bound brutes that dominate professional rugby, but Ford insists guile can still master brawn.
“Obviously I’m smaller than most lads on the pitch, but I don’t feel threatened by it. There are other areas of game apart from being big and powerful,” said Ford, who was playing on loan at Leeds Carnegie just four years’ ago.
“There is the mental side of it, being smarter, cleverer, quicker and having a feel for the sport.
“I do get asked the question about my size a lot – little lads come up to me and say ‘you’re not very big’. And they are usually bigger than me!
“I tell them not to worry about it and make sure that they can kick the ball.”
Ford’s fly-half channel may be viewed as an area to exploit by Fiji, but it is his Bath team-mate Anthony Watson who must stare down the Islanders’ goal-kicking juggernaut for the whole 80 minutes.
Four tries in three matches has elevated Watson to the status of England’s main strike weapon, but the 21-year-old knows it is his defence that will be tested when the eyes of the rugby world turn their gaze to Twickenham tomorrow.
“It’s a good opportunity,” said Watson. “I’ve got tremendous respect for him as a player. He’s a world-class winger.
“I’m approaching it like I would playing against George North. I’ll do my homework on him, try to pick out areas where I can potentially impose my game on him and look at areas where he’s particularly strong.
“You’re not going to play against wingers the same size as you every weekend. You’ve got to be able to adapt to the size and strengths and weaknesses of your opposition winger.
“Across the board in their back line, Fiji have game breakers.
“Defensively all of us are going to have to be on the money.
“They’re all pretty much big blokes and they’ve all got good footwork. It’s going to be a good challenge for us.”
Ford admits that after months of build-up and a punishing 10-week summer training camp, he is pleased that the World Cup is finally about to begin.
“We’ve been waiting for this a long time – it’s been a long pre-season,” he said.
“It has been nice to have a couple of warm-up games to get back into match mode.
“To finally get the World Cup kicked off, it’s a bit of a relief. We’ve been waiting for it, we are ready for it and we can’t wait to get out there.”
Former New Zealand winger Jonah Lomu, meanwhile, has warned England that Fiji will feel no fear in tomorrow’s opener and believes they are capable of causing an upset at Twickenham.
England launch their campaign against the Pacific Islanders, knowing victory will be essential to their hopes of escaping Pool A, where Wales and Australia are also fighting to make the quarter-finals.
Fiji recorded a shock win against Wales in 2007 to reach the last eight and Lomu, who scored 15 tries across the 1995 and 1999 World Cups, believes they can defy the odds again.
“They have an upset in them,” said Lomu.
“Somewhere along the line they’re going to knock over a big team and it could be England.
“The majority of their players, 80 per cent of them or so, play in Europe. They’re not intimidated in terms of playing against these guys because they play against them week in week out. They are a threat.
“England don’t see Fiji too often so they have to assert their authority early on and shut them out from the beginning.
“If you give them a sniff that they have a chance, it could be a long day at the office for the England team.”
Lomu said one Fiji player capable of hurting England is Nadolo, who has scored 15 tries in 20 international matches.
The 6ft 5in powerhouse has lit up the southern hemisphere’s Super 15 competition with Crusaders over the last two seasons and is the latest dangerman to be compared with Lomu, a tag the former All Black admits is not always helpful.
“I think about that all the time,” said Lomu. “When I first came on the scene and did what I did – it means people are looking for the next one all the time and so lots of players get labelled that or something similar.
“It’s difficult. I’ve had that for the past 20 years.
“Nadolo is a great player. He’s going to do his best for his home nation and now he’s here, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see some priceless moments from that man.
“He’ll give the rest of the players belief and confidence.”