George Ford decorated his first Test start with some flashes of brilliance during England's 28-9 defeat of Samoa. We analyse the best bits.
It says a great deal for the precocious potential of George Ford and his dazzling years in England‘s age-group ranks that a maiden international start at senior level seemed overdue. Remember, the fly half is not 22 until next March.
By then, he might well have won another five caps in the No 10 jersey too. Certainly, during a 28-9 victory over Samoa that was fractured and disjointed in patches, Ford was responsible for some of his team’s most cohesive, eye-catching passages. If brushing himself off after some traditionally bone-shuddering (and, in my opinion, fair) Pacific Islander tackling showed guts, there was also plenty of guile.
To beat Australia and end this testing autumn on a high, England must be more exact. Here is a run-down of six moments in which Ford demonstrated his worth to Stuart Lancaster.
England 0-3 Samoa, 14 minutes: Boot to ball
A fairly worrying aspect of England’s approach on Friday night was how loose they were in attack. Too often Lancaster’s charges strayed from structure and, in an attempt to inject pace into proceedings, conceded turnovers from either handling errors or a lack of support at the breakdown.
This clip comes just after a particularly frantic spell. As you can see, carrier Joe Marler gets isolated and Samoa lock Filo Paulo pounces to pilfer possession. The pinball continues as Chris Robshaw races in to win the ball back, and Rob Webber does well to pass away.
However, with the hosts behind on the scoreboard thanks to an early Tusi Pisi penalty, Ford then makes the practical decision to take hold of the territorial battle. Skidding the kick low, he calmly makes the most of the conditions to drive Samoa back and bring England direction.
England 3-3 Samoa, 19 minutes: May unleashed
Regardless of whether or not Mike Brown‘s pass drifted forward, there is always something aesthetically pleasing about a first-phase try. Unsurprisingly, Ford is the pivotal figure as England’s backline capitalise on excellent ball from the tail of the lineout.
The primary component of the score is a midfield wrap-around between Ford and Owen Farrell. It is executed flawlessly as the pair of former junior teammates build on their instinctive understanding:
Johnny Leota (circled in blue) is fixed by decoy runner Brad Barritt and Farrell can lift a pass across his body to Ford. The fly half then has his opening and takes advantage:
On receiving the ball back from Farrell, Ford accelerates away. Crucially though, he remains mindful of space and curves back infield – as accentuated by the red line. This both attracts Samoa defenders and allows Brown and Anthony Watson to retain width. In fact, this was arguably the most threatening Brown has ever looked for England in terms of hitting the line from deep in phase-play.
To nit pick, May would possibly have been under the posts untouched with a simple cut here, but Brown is given enough time to find his right wing on the inside. While the score lifted England, their lead was soon cut as Pisi landed another penalty. Ford instigated an immediate reply, though.
England 10-6 Samoa, 23 minutes: Pinpoint restart
Mopers do not last long in Lancaster’s set-up. Feeling sorry for oneself is not a habit he endures. As such, this would have delighted him. Here, straight after Pisi lands a three-pointer, Ford exhibits the controlled urgency Lancaster wants. He organises his chasers early and weights the kick perfectly.
The restart has become more important in modern rugby as sides get better at recovering them. Ford’s effort above comes before Samoa are set and lands precisely on the head of five foot seven David Lemi. Its hang-time also allows Watson and Barritt to charge into the catcher’s eye-line:
Lemi spilt, England won a penalty from the scrum and Ford added three points to get England back up and running.
England 13-6 Samoa, 33 minutes: Scything break
Ford’s speed of foot and mind make him a nightmare to shackle when there are multiple runners in motion. After England again manufacture a fantastic platform from another slick lineout, he has a chance to sting Samoa as Ben Youngs whips the ball away:
With May and Barritt in close attendance, defenders are sucked in. Ford needs no encouraging to have a crack:
In the red circle here we see some important gamesmanship from Barritt, who maintains on the same course to obstruct some Samoa tacklers. While the Saracen has critics from an attacking angle, both here and for the May try his role was pivotal.
A pump off his left hand from Ford sends Johnny Leota drifting and the gap is created. But the timing of the next pass is equally impressive:
Isolating the moment Ford releases the ball, the body language of both Ken Pisi and Lemi is telling. Their shoulders are both facing the Bath man, meaning they are at least semi-committed to him. A look at Ford’s work from the reverse angle gives a great idea of his vision:
If Brown had caught this on the run, a simple transfer would have seen Anthony Watson over. As it was, England’s full back had a try himself just minutes into the second period.
England 16-6 Samoa, 52 minutes: Cross-kick perfection
For the third time in this piece, England’s lineout is the origin of some effective back play. Though Samoa stand off the maul, they are penalised by referee Jaco Peyper. With advantage, Ford has a shot to nothing and spies that the visitors are rather narrow:
Now, what makes this a devastating cross-kick is its flat trajectory. The ball reaches Watson rapidly and he hardly has to break stride. Again, the reverse angle is insightful:
Seven minutes later with Samoa reduced to 14 men, May added his second and England threatened to run up a heavy scoreline. However, the game descended into a scrappy affair until a harum-scarum ending.
England 28-9 Samoa, 81 minutes: More gain-line slicing
In some ways, this felt like an appropriate finish to the game – bright promise but underlying frustration. Ford’s run is clearly a fine piece of athleticism. Still it is important to acknowledge the awareness too. Look who he bypasses:
Circled in blue are Maatuilmanu Leiatua and Viliamu Afatia, two Samoa replacements – a hooker and loosehead prop. It is a classic mis-match and one Ford exploits clinically. It is just a shame that Dave Attwood cannot hold on.
Ford will almost certainly be handed the reins against the Wallabies, and with them a chance to build on what was a fine display. England need to capitalise on every opportunity he creates.