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George Ford’s England career again at a crossroads

George Ford

At some point on Saturday afternoon England supporters will have something to celebrate however the match is going against Ireland at Twickenham when Danny Care is introduced from the bench to win his 100th cap.

It will be an emotive moment. The 37 year-old is one of the most popular members of Steve Borthwick’s side, and despite making his debut 16 years ago against New Zealand, retains an infectious enthusiasm and unbridled passion for rugby and his country.

The Harlequins scrum-half will join Ben Youngs, Jason Leonard, Owen Farrell, Dan Cole and Courtney Lawes as the only Englishmen to have won 100 Test caps. It is an exclusive club but one that differs from several other leading nations including New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Ireland, who boast more centurions and many more who are widely lauded as legends on the world stage.

In contrast Youngs and Farrell have both attracted criticism from England supporters over the years, while Cole was stranded on 95 caps for over three years before the 36 year-old made a remarkable comeback to the international stage last year under Steve Borthwick.

Care has also had to get there the hard way, with his international career seemingly twice ended by England’s former head coach Eddie Jones while 56 of his 99 caps off the bench. That should not diminish his achievement but reflects a broader theme where continuity in England’s selection has never been its strength.

Which brings us to George Ford, the next England men’s player in line to reach the landmark – he will win his 95th cap against Ireland – and another player whose career has suffered from English rugby’s ‘tinkerman’ predilection.

Danny Care and George Ford
Danny Care is set to win his 100th cap – will George Ford follow him into the centurion camp? - Getty Images/David Rogers

Ford still holds the record for the youngest player to make his professional debut in England at 16 years and 237 days, was crowned the World Rugby young player of the year in 2011 and once described by Eddie Jones as the best 18-year-old No 10 I have ever seen”.

Yet for most of his career he has operated in the shadow of his old schoolmate Farrell, either as a 10/12 partnership or losing his place when the former England captain switched to fly-half, as happened during the World Cup in France, despite almost single-handedly inspiring the 14-man victory over Argentina.

Like Care, he also had his international career almost ended by Jones, when he was left out of the national squad for the autumn Tests in 2021 as part of what the head coach called his ‘new England’ project’, only for the Australian to later perform another U-turn.

When Farrell made his decision to stand down from international rugby after the World Cup in France, it felt like the moment had finally arrived to free up Ford, to not only enjoy a sustained period of matches at fly-half but also stamp his own authority and shape England’s attack around his footballing prowess and vision. The Sale Sharks fly-half may be a veteran of three World Cup campaigns, but at the age of just 30, a fourth campaign in Australia in 2027 looked a realistic target.

Yet once again it feels like Ford has reached another acid test.

England’s attack has stuttered during the first three rounds of the Guinness Six Nations Championship and while Ford’s kicking masterclass was key in securing victory over Wales at Twickenham, he has yet to deliver an all-court performance in the manner that he can.

George Ford
Ford has had a start-stop England career and has struggled to get the backline moving this Six Nations - Getty Images/Ashley Western

Will Carling, the former England captain, argued in these pages that England’s ambitions were stuck in a “data straitjacket”, a notion that was rejected by the camp, with the defeat by Scotland put down to the high number of unforced errors and turnovers.

What is certain though is that Ford’s attacking genius is most effective when he takes the ball to the line; executing a kicking strategy during this campaign has seen him drop too deep too often.

With Marcus Smith back on the bench having recovered from injury, and Fin Smith’s meteoric rise for Northampton Saints this season, Ford already finds himself looking over his shoulder again.

The inclusion of five Harlequins on the bench at Twickenham suggests that England are planning to spring Marcus Smith off the bench, bolstered by the familiarity of key club team-mates – Care, Alex Dombrandt and Chandler Cunningham-South, with Ollie Lawrence likely to fill the role played by the Stoop’s powerhouse 12, André Esterhuizen.

There was a time when some England supporters used to clamour for Ford to start when Farrell had an off day, now he must quell calls for either of the Smiths to be given the starting fly-half berth to advance the side’s attacking intent.

Owen Farrell and George Ford
Owen Farrell, Ford's great friend, is a big reason why the fly-half's international career has seen him moved from 10 to 12 and back again - Getty Images/David Rogers

And there is no greater platform to do so than the visit of Andy Farrell’s double Grand Slam-chasing side.

Ford as a young boy used to attend Ireland training sessions and kick balls back for David Humphreys and Ronan O’Gara, when his father Mike was their defence coach in the early 2000s.

Ford junior also owned an Ireland jersey before he had an English one, a gift from scrum-half Peter Stringer when he was brought into the Irish changing room by his father after a game against England at Twickenham. They were childhood memories that stayed with him.

Ford knows more than most what makes Ireland sides tick, and he will know, too, the importance of his game if he is to prove the doubters wrong.

One constant since making his England debut in March 2014 has been his team-first attitude. If he is to become England’s seventh centurion, one feels this is a game that must be all about him.

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