Ford brings England’s future into focus
The gloom surrounding England’s end of year campaign was lifted by a much needed victory over Samoa on Saturday and more precisely the ray of light offered by George Ford.
Starved of game time since graduating to the senior England set-up and the opportunity to prove that he is a rival for the England No.10 shirt rather than just a back-up to Owen Farrell, Ford made the most of his first Test start with a classy and composed display.
In doing so he not only helped bring a five-game losing run to an end but also offered compelling evidence that he should retain the role when Australia visit Twickenham next weekend.
Lancaster’s decision to belatedly hand 21-year-old Ford the England reins and shift Owen Farrell to inside centre soon paid dividends with an understanding honed through the junior ranks laying the foundation for a superb opening score.
A simple loop around enticed a tackle-hungry Samoa defence sufficiently to allow Ford to ghost into some space where he drew one of many tackle he soaked up during the game. He then found fullback Mike Brown who popped the ball up to winger Jonny May whose electric pace carried him all the way to the line.
Unfortunately for Farrell, he was unable to use that as a stepping stone to a performance that would silence his critics and as a result England’s midfield remains a work in progress.
It would get even better for Ford and England shortly after the break. A superbly-executed cross kick found Anthony Watson – who also impressed on only his second England start – and the winger fed Brown for a try.
But it is arguably England’s final try that will bring the broadest smile to coach Stuart Lancaster’s face.
England’s near-perfect lineout – the hosts lost just one of 18 on their own throw and also stole four from Samoa – secured the ball before the forwards powered towards the Samoa line.
Denied by a committed Samoa defence, the ball was recycled at speed and some quick hands gave May time and space to cross for his second try.
Despite May’s try-scoring heroics, this was Ford’s day although Samoa did their best to ruin it.
Predictably fired up after a turbulent week off the pitch, Samoa went after the comparatively slight Ford, and some of his team-mates, but he reminded us he has the steel to complement the abundance of skill he can call on.
Anyone in any doubt as to his physical – and mental – strength need look no further than huge hit that he weathered from Samoa’s Johnny Leota midway through the second half.
The Samoan centre’s challenge was ruled as dangerous, perhaps a little harshly, and earned him a yellow card although you would be hard pressed to gauge that from Ford’s reaction as the England playmaker bounced back to his feet and immediately looked to get his side moving again.
He may still “be learning his trade” according to assistant coach Mike Catt but on current form he is the nearest thing that England have to a world-class fly-half and must be given the game time to further fuel his development.
As welcome and noteworthy Ford’s performance, England’s latest showing was also eye-catching for the wrong reasons.
Errors blighted much of their play and once again they were guilty of playing in the wrong areas and conceding turnovers in promising field positions.
The rain and fatigue may have played their part but there remains clear cause for concern when it comes to their basic skills – or lack of them – under pressure.
A lack of a clinical edge has cost England dear already this month and on this occasion they were just lucky that Samoa did not possess the firepower to make them pay for similar shortcomings having enjoyed plenty of possession and territory.
With Samoa’s defence stretched inside their own 22, Brown failed to hold onto a pass from Ford – albeit a fizzing one – and the chance was gone. But he was not the only culprit with both replacement winger Marland Yarde and lock Dave Attwood also among those set to dread reviewing certain elements of this game.
With an open field and support runners alongside, Yarde failed to find his man which will not have done his cause any good while Attwood failed to capitalise on more good build-up work from Ford late in the game when coughing up the ball within reach of Samoa’s line.
Thankfully for them, Ford will steal the headlines having, in the words of Lancaster, “put down a real marker”.