Leicester Tigers slipped to a 6th straight Aviva Premiership defeat at Exeter Chiefs last weekend. With a team packed with internationals, should the England management be worried about England fly-half George Ford’s form?
Wind Behind, A Wall In Front
6-3 down at half time on a blustery Devon afternoon. For the first 40 mins, Leicester went toe-to-toe with the defending champions, muscling their way into the contest against a brutal wind.
With the game finely poised and a 5 game losing streak to set right, George Ford and his backline had the wind behind them and a simple gameplan to execute. Keep Exeter in their own 22 and force the mistakes.
England’s current fly-half started the half well. Popping the ball over the on-rushing defence and behind wingers, he looked in good touch. Twice he made the Chiefs’ wide-men turn and bounced the ball into touch. The plan was working.
Then the wheels came off. A series of weak passes, kicks and handling errors allowed the Chiefs to escape their own half and put the Tigers pack under pressure. The demons that have haunted George Ford’s form came back to the fore and the game slipped away.f
Ford had the conditions and the players to demoralise the Chiefs but failed to capitalise. With the ball in hand, the Tigers’ backline was static and waited for Ford to play the ball rather than attacking with any verve.
Sensing the weakness, Exeter’s work-horse pack upped their intensity and denied the Tigers quick ball. With a forward pack that wasn’t dominating, Ford retreated into his shell.
With Ben Youngs inside, Matt Toomua outside and the battering ram of Manu Tuilagi to use as an ‘out’, this should have been tailor-made for Ford to get a much needed Leicester win. Toomua, the man who can unlock many defensive doors, was ineffective outside the Tigers’ 10. Standing too close or too flat, the chemistry between 10 and 12 just wasn’t there.
A similar axis exists in the England setup and the on-looking Eddie Jones in the stands will not have been impressed.
Quality in the Position
Had the shoe been on the other foot and Steenson was running the Tigers’ backline would the result have been different? It’s hard to tell. A huge error from Jonny May who gifted the ball to Henry Slade for a try was not the fly-half’s fault. But, with crucial 6 Nations matches on the horizon and a World Cup with unpredictable conditions, will Jones be looking for more control from the No. 10 jersey?
Ford is clearly a quality operator and his vision with ball in hand is something that often sets him apart. But this worrying trend to drift or retreat when behind a pack that isn’t dominating will certainly be a question on Jones’ mind.
Ford tops the OPTA rugby rankings for kicks in play this season (157) but the control just hasn’t been evident during this Tigers slump. Against Exeter, Ford kicked 10 times in play compared to Steenson’s 3 yet the Chiefs’ fly-half looked far more assured.
Another worrying statistic were the 3 missed tackles last week and 17 for the season so far. Jones highlighted how highly he regards defensive capabilities at the recent England training camp when discussing George Graham. George Ford’s form is not up to scratch, but missing tackles is something he has to eradicate with half a season to go.
Options for Jones
Players such as Danny Cipriani who provide a little maverick devil do not feature in the thoughts of England’s selectors, so it might be assumed that the control of the game is a highly valued commodity from the England management.
At England’s training camp this week, Eddie Jones made a veiled nod towards the future when discussing Marcus Smith’s credentials as a third fly half at the World Cup in 2019. If the Harlequins man keeps on his upward trajectory then it won’t just be a squad position he’s aiming for.
If control and defensive ability continue to be issues it won’t be long until Jones turns to Farrell. The Saracen would fit as a far better option at 10 with a dedicated 12 coming into midfield.
The Tigers’ results have not helped George Ford’s form and soon it may not be just Leicester fans who are wishing for a return to winning ways.
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