Is Selecting George Ford Hindering England’s Future?

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Italy v England - RBS Six Nations
ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 14: George Ford of England looks on at a scrum during the RBS Six Nations match between Italy and England at Stadio Olimpico on February 14, 2016 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Dan Mullan - RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Eventually Eddie Jones is going to have to decide if George Ford is his number 10 heading into Rugby World Cup ‘judgement day’ in 2019, with the Bath out-half prohibiting England’s back division.

Jones introduced the Ford/Farrell axis at numbers 10 and 12 when he made his debut as England coach against Scotland. Over his unbeaten tenure, Jones has persisted with it for 15 of his 16 victories.

Whilst it does allow England the ‘extra dimension’ of having two playmakers involved in their backs division, it comes with as many problems as it does solutions. Harsh it may be, but right now George Ford is hindering England’s development and his individual performances are not justifiable collateral.

What to do with George Ford in the England Squad?

Jones’ faith in playing Ford at 10 means he simply must play Farrell at 12–given that the Saracens man is the first name on the team sheet. That is, despite the England boss insisting captain Dylan Hartley remains his main man when selection time comes.

The Australian-born head coach was quoted as saying that ‘Farrell is the only Englishman currently capable of putting his hand up should a world XV be selected tomorrow’. Billy Vunipola would perhaps put his name in the mix, and on current form so would Joe Launchbury. But Jones’ message is loud and clear – Farrell is integral to everything England do.

The gap between Ford and Farrell when the Bath man burst onto the scene in 2014; in an attacking sense, was huge. Ford, like his father, took the ball as close to the gainline as he dared. Endeavoring to put his team mate through the gaps that he would ultimately create with that elusiveness. But since then, Farrell has gone beyond that stage, and over the past 18 months, excelled in that aspect of his game. Fairly, or unfairly, the gap between the two offensively has decreased phenomenally.

Ford’s Failings are Clear to See

Where Farrell has always had the edge is defensively and, whilst genetics and an inferior height play a factor [externally] Ford is susceptible in defense. Opposition runners may see the 23-year-old as a weak link. Italy’s third try in their defeat at Twickenham in round three of the RBS Six Nations exposed that flaw in England’s armour. Exeter Chiefs back Michele Campagnaro bulldozed through Ford, before stepping past Mike Brown to put the home side in real jeopardy before they rallied towards victory.

Michele Campagnaro of Italy scores his teams second try during the RBS Six Nations match between England and Italy at Twickenham Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

That was an Six Nations game against the competitions weakest side. Against New Zealand in the latter stages of a World Cup in two years’ time, that seeming chink in England’s defense might well be similar to a ‘Sunday stroll’ for someone like Julian Savea or Malakai Fekitoa. It is a weakness England can ill afford, if they are to reach the standards Jones has set. 

Ford’s inclusion also restricts England to a solitary natural midfield player; given that flyhalf Farrell starts at 12. Jonathan Joseph has worn the 13 shirt for the majority of Jones’ tenure but with so many options and combinations to explore at inside and outside center–remember Manu Tuilagi could still break back into the squad–that time is of the essence.

England Rugby Inside Center Options

Ben Te’o has forced his way into the mix with two brilliant cameos off the bench in the opening rounds of the Championship, and was given a start against Italy. The Italians innovative tactics around the breakdown created somewhat of a unique match at Twickenham. Te’o was not allowed to exert his influence – although a try will keep him in the mix.

Henry Slade came off the bench for the final five minutes, and produced a sumptuous offload in the lead up to England’s sixth and final try. Jones seems unconvinced as to whether Slade has the mental toughness to play international rugby but many think that aspect will come with time. The Exeter back is simply ‘too good to ignore’.

Slade, who is three days younger than Ford, gives England that second pair of eyes having burst onto the scene as a fly-half before spending the majority of his time in the midfield at Sandy Park. He is also strong in defense and would ensure England’s solidarity without the ball does not create an ‘easy target’.

Fortunately, Jones has allowed Elliot Daly to discover himself across the back line and the Wasps man scored again against the Italians to be voted ‘Man of the Match’.

Like Slade, Daly is simply too good not to be involved and Jones has recognized that his skill set can be well utilized out wide–but can he expand his game even more?

Joseph, Te’o, Slade and; given a chance, Daly currently occupy the top four spots in the midfield pecking order for England. As noted, Daly has been caressed well over the last 12 months and can be an influential player, in the same vein as an Israel Dagg. So that leaves the remaining three all vying against Ford for starting number 12 berth.

Decision Time for George Ford, and his Longterm Backline Role

Whilst Ford remains cemented to the 10 shirt, England are losing out on a valuable commodity that even the omniscient Jones cannot control – time. Fans struggle to believe that come the opening game of the 2019 RWC in Japan, when Jones must play without hesitation his strongest hand, Farrell will not line up in the fly-half position.

The popular consensus is that Farrell starting at first-five, England will have two options outside him. Age is on the side of Joseph and Slade, whilst Te’o should be at his peak in two years time. Given the irrepressible English talent ‘still not being sufficiently rewarded’ then a player like George Ford might now be encouraged to go away and work on the aspects of his game that are hindering it.

Not only his own performances, but England’s future. 

 

“Main photo credit”

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