Talented Ford can help drive England forward

George Ford
George Ford
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Even at the age of 18 on a brisk winter’s afternoon in the Championship, there was something extra special about George Ford.

The footwork, the kicking and the game-management all looked a class apart as he took the field in the No 12 shirt of Leeds Carnegie on New Year’s Day, 2012, against London Scottish.

Thrust into the first team with barely a few days’ training under his belt after joining from Leicester Tigers on a month’s loan, the nimble teenager was not up to speed yet still stood out.

Six days later, a virtuoso performance in his preferred No 10 shirt helped the West Yorkshire club rack up 42 points in a win at Moseley. Ford scored a try, had one disallowed and created three more.

Before the end of the week he had been recalled by Leicester as cover for Toby Flood and his cameo with Leeds was over.

Exactly two years on and again he was being called upon in the absence of Flood yesterday, but this time by England head coach Stuart Lancaster.

Ford’s promotion due to Flood’s omission was the major talking point as Lancaster named his selections for the 2014 Six Nations, which begins for England in Paris on February 1.

Ford has been promoted into the fly-half frame behind first-choice Owen Farrell because Flood is set to leave Leicester at the end of the season and join Toulouse, so taking himself out of the running as England do not choose players who play their club rugby outside this country.

Ford himself departed Welford Road six months ago for Bath because Flood was blocking his way at club level.

“We’re disappointed Toby has decided to play in France but it is a decision we respect,” said Lancaster, of a 28-year-old who earned 60 caps largely as understudy to Jonny Wilkinson and then Farrell.

“I spoke to him a couple of times and tried to persuade him to stay but he’s made a lifestyle decision. He’s been fantastic for us and I’ve got a really good relationship with him.

“I’ve had a couple of good meetings with him. He understands our policy that we don’t take players (playing abroad) unless there’s exceptional circumstances and I’d rather make the decision now, 20 months out from the World Cup, and give players like Stephen Myler and George Ford an opporunity to show what they can do as we get closer.

“It’s a great opportunity for George. He showed great maturity at the weekend but we’ve known about him for a long time.

“He’s been on the pathway for a while now. He had great development when he was at Leicester and now at Bath, and he’s getting regular game time now. This is the right time to bring him in and see what he can do at a higher level.

“Like any young player there are areas he is working on all the time.

“His tactical kicking is excellent, he can beat defenders with his running game, he defends well and he’s a good goalkicker.

“I had a good chat with his dad (Bath head coach Mike) and the coaches and senior players who I respect at Bath and they have a huge amount to say about his game-understanding and his maturity as a young player.

“Twenty months out from the World Cup is the right time to bring him into the mix and give him the chance to get into the team.”

Ford and Meyler have both jumped ahead of Freddie Burns in the queue for fly-half, with the Gloucester prospect currently out of form but still afforded a chance in the Saxons’ squad, who play two A-team fixtures ahead of the Six Nations.

Ford can play at fly-half or inside centre – as he did in his two games for Leeds – and he also played at No 10 for England Under-20s with Farrell outside him.

Lancaster, though, suggested yesterday that such a formation is not in his plans at present with Farrell his first-choice stand-off and Ford and Myler tasked with supplanting him.

Huddersfield-born Luther Burrell – another former Leeds Carnegie player – has been named in the Six Nations squad, the third time he has been part of Lancaster’s thoughts as he awaits his debut.

With Brad Barritt back from injury, Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond in the centres equation, though, his wait may go on.

“I’m excited to bring Luther in now. He deserves this opportunity,” said Lancaster of the 26-year-old Northampton Saint.

Bath teenager Anthony Watson, Gloucester’s Jonny May and 
Exeter’s Jack Nowell provide competition on the wings for Chris Ashton, while Leeds-born scrum-half Danny Care, of Harlequins, retains his place.

Pocklington-born hooker Rob Webber has been promoted to the squad primarily to give “some depth to our training”.

Lancaster said of his squad: “We have kept changes to a minimum because we believe that this squad can take us forward into 2015 and we are hopeful that some of those injured may be available before the end of the Six Nations and certainly for the New Zealand tour in the summer.”

Former Rotherham Titans forward Sam Dickinson is in the Saxons squad that kick off their campaign against Ireland at Gloucester on January 25.

Paul Hill, a former Prince Henry’s Grammar School pupil in Otley and now a member of Leeds Carnegie’s academy, has retained his place in England’s Under-20s squad.