Why George Ford's value to England is higher than ever

George Ford of England runs with the ball during the Autumn Nations Cup Final and Quilter International match between England and France - David Rogers /Getty Images
George Ford of England runs with the ball during the Autumn Nations Cup Final and Quilter International match between England and France - David Rogers /Getty Images

George Ford speaks about rugby union in a similar style to which he plays: with unfussy eloquence. And he leaves just enough room between the lines. On the subject of England’s misfiring attack, Ford is diplomatic.

“It’s difficult,” he admits. “When you’re not in there and you don’t understand what they’re trying to do day-to-day, week-to-week and the messaging and what they’re going after, it’s very, very hard to comment.

“What I do know is that international rugby is a massive step up from Premiership rugby. It’s a lot more challenging when you’ve got the ball, not that you can’t attack and have the mind-set to attack – of course you can, you can play some great rugby internationally.

“It’s just difficult to say. I’m sure the boys won’t be too happy with the way things have gone but it won’t be through a lack of clarity or a lack of trying. It’s just sometimes that happens.”

Players will tell you that they always want to be on the pitch. But their stock can also rise in absentia. Ford has been a peripheral figure with England for over a year now, only being brought in as Marcus Smith’s deputy for the 2022 Six Nations when Owen Farrell was injured. He came off the bench four times in that tournament, totalling a mere 28 minutes. Ford was clearly nudged aside while Jones built Smith’s experience.

Among the most influential individuals as Leicester Tigers won the Premiership last season, Ford is yet to feature for Sale Sharks, his new club, after rupturing his right Achilles tendon in the final at Twickenham. He is targeting a return towards the end of December or the start of January and will join another title race because Sale have started the campaign well and sit second behind Saracens.

George Ford - PA/RIchard Sellers
George Ford - PA/RIchard Sellers

Long renowned as an on-field strategist anyway, Ford has “really enjoyed” collaborating with Paul Deacon and Rob du Preez, Sale’s attack coach and fly-half combination. Indeed, during his first major injury lay-off since emerging into the senior ranks as a teenager, the 29-year-old seems at ease and to have collected himself ahead of a new stage to his career. Alex Sanderson’s set-up is evidently a good fit.

“In terms of rugby stuff, the way they prepare and train, Tigers and Sale are just as good as each other,” Ford adds. “Alex has got the way we want to play crystal clear. We try to reflect that and practice that in the week and perform at the weekend. That’s all you can ask for as a player, really.

“One of the main differences would be that I have never laughed so much in my life since coming to Sale. That’s hard to explain. They just love each other’s company, taking the mick out of each other, making it an enjoyable place to be. Alex is at the forefront of that.

“Tom Curry’s been in trouble this year [with mickey-taking]. I don’t know, it’s like every meeting I am f----- laughing my head off. But when it’s time to switch on and train, the lads are focussed. They’re comfortable with being themselves.”

If he is granted an elevator pitch to save his job, Jones will surely point to the fact that he has Ford, one of the world’s best fly-halves, as well as gnarled scrumaggers such as Joe Marler and Dan Cole, to reintegrate into the England fold.

Despite recent omissions, only Jamie George, Ben Youngs and Farrell have more than Ford’s tally of 64 caps in the Jones era. How ironic it would be if the end of Jones is foreshadowed by its only Ford-free period.

Understandably, Ford refrains from commenting on England’s coaching predicament – “as a player, these things are so out of our control” – and reiterates his focus on hitting the ground running with Sale. Upon his Sharks introduction, he will be reunited with Manu Tuilagi. The latter picked up a grand total of 24 attacking touches for England in November, eight of them directly from first phase.

“The thing with Manu is he needs deception around him,” Ford explains. “Manu needs to get the ball when he’s not the only option to get the ball. He needs to have other people around him so you can create a one-on-one for him. If you create a one-on-one for Manu, or half a shoulder for Manu, he’s impossible to tackle, pretty much.

“Also, again, how can we get Manu with time, with space, and with those opportunities in phase-play and not just off set piece? You can design a play from set piece, of course you can, but you need to get Manu the ball in his hands when it is a little bit more unstructured, when he can get the ball in a channel and he’s got a one-on-one.

“Again, that’s a lot of deception, that’s not just giving it to Manu and ‘there you go. Take the whole team on’. It’s your team mind-set and philosophy.”

Manu Tuilagi against South Africa - Alex Davidson /Getty Images
Manu Tuilagi against South Africa - Alex Davidson /Getty Images

Somewhere down the line, to indulge a cliché, Ford will feel like a new signing for England as well as Sale. Asked to articulate his memories of 2019, and the sharpest that Jones’ team has looked with the ball, Ford gets into his stride quickly.

“It was a long time ago now,” he says. “My mind-set on attack now is that there should be a good flow about it. It should look effortless and it should be: 'Bloody hell, how did they just create that opportunity there? They made that look so easy'.

“That's what we're trying to do at Sale a bit more now. How do we get that flow in attack? How do we get momentum in attack? What's the easiest way to do it? There are a variety of ways to do it. Sale are doing brilliantly now

“It should have that sort of feel about it,” Ford adds. “It probably takes a bit of time to get. As a 10, that's when I feel at my best because you understand what you're trying to do, you understand momentum, you understand what options you've got. It's just a case then of trying to pick the right one.”

If they have understood their remit over the past three campaigns, England have been unable to implement it on a consistent basis. Ford’s blend of craft and experience seems more valuable than ever.