Rugby league converts George Ford and Owen Farrell will complete their journey from childhood friends to England team-mates at Twickenham tomorrow when Stuart Lancaster’s side lock horns with Ireland in a pivotal Six Nations fixture.
Ford’s rise to the England ranks was confirmed yesterday when he was named on the bench by head coach Lancaster for the third appointment of the championship.
Ford is expected to be introduced into the centres at some stage in the second half, and if he joins Farrell in the team it will crown career trajectories that began on opposite sides of a junior rugby league pitch.
They were brought together as union team-mates when their fathers – Mike Ford and Andy Farrell – were united at Saracens as coach and player.
It was the beginning of a friendship that would include influential roles in the England Under-20 side that reached the 2011 junior World Cup final, Ford playing at fly-half with Farrell at inside centre.
Farrell, who at 22 is two years older, has since established himself as England’s outstanding No 10 and Ford insists they feed off each other’s commitment.
“We lived next door to each other and went to the same school, which was good. We walked to school together every day and then came home together,” said Ford.
“We used to play a lot of golf, but mainly it was going out on the street, with me, Owen and my older brother (Joe – former Leeds Carnegie player) and playing two-on-ones and having a mess around with the rugby ball.
“We were just rugby mad, so there weren’t too many other hobbies – apart from going to the sweet shop.
“We’ve played together in age group stuff and it’s a relationship where we can keep pushing each other on and do what’s best for the team.
“It’s pretty unique that we knew each other from ages ago and played against each other ages ago, but are in the same England squad now. It’s brilliant really.
“Owen was always the outstanding player coming up through the age groups. Going into union he was the guy that everyone was talking about. He was carving up teams week-in, week-out.
“With his dad playing as well, everyone knew who he was. He was the guy everybody looked out for.”
Ford’s elevation to the matchday 23 has been driven by the need to add depth at fly-half in case Farrell should be injured.
Having swapped Leicester for Bath last summer, a commanding season at the Recreation Ground has seen Ford promoted above Gloucester’s Freddie Burns in England’s pecking order.
The challenge facing Lancaster is to give him as much game time as possible to build up his experience heading into the 2015 World Cup.
Ford added: “Owen has been brilliant in the last two games. He’s been attacking the gainline and managing the game well. His defence, kicking and goal-kicking have been world class.
“I can be the same player. The way we want to play with England is very similar to what we are trying to do at Bath.
“We are trying to score a lot of points and have the mindset to be positive and run when it is on and take teams on.
“I like to attack the gainline, be quite flat and put other people into space and when it is on to manage the game.
“If it is on, nine out of 10 times I like to kick it in behind to build pressure.”
Lancaster refused to offer any prediction over when Ford would be brought on at Twickenham.
“You can never predict these things, although you go into games with a mindset about what to do,” he said.
“We may have injuries in the centres that need to be covered, so we’ll wait and see. If he does get his opportunity we know he’s ready.
“George is composed and controlled and his confidence has grown throughout the season for Bath.
“It’s great to have him involved. He has settled in well and we are confident in his ability should he get his opportunity from the bench.”
The big head-scratcher for Lancaster is at tight-head where Dan Cole’s neck injury has left him with only two fit tight-head props, David Wilson – who comes into the team – and Sale’s Henry Thomas.
Wilson has played only 47 minutes of rugby in the last two months after suffering a calf injury. Lancaster said: “David is an experienced international with 31 caps and he showed in his three starts against Argentina last year what he can do.”
Huddersfield-born Luther Burrell makes his Twickenham bow in an England shirt after scoring tries on his opening two international appearances.
He will line up tomorrow against one of the towers of international rugby, Brian O’Driscoll, who adds another impressive accolade to his bulging bag of record feats.
The 35-year-old will equal former Australia half-back George Gregan’s Test appearance mark of 139, with his eight British and Irish Lions bows included.
Ireland boss Joe Schmidt will field an unchanged starting XV from the side that demolished Wales 26-3 and has won both their games so far.