England U20 and Leicester Tigers fly half George Ford has been named IRB Young Player of the Year for 2011, beating New Zealand duo Sam Cane and Luke Whitelock to the coveted prize.
Voted for by team head coaches and match officials, as well as international and local media, Ford is the first Englishman to claim the award, although London Wasps and England scrum half Joe Simpson and Sale Sharks forward Carl Fearns were both nominated in 2008 and 2009 respectively.
At just 18-years-old, Ford was the youngest player at the Junior World Championship in Italy in June and the young Tiger breaks a spell of five years without a northern hemisphere winner – Frenchman Lionel Beauxis was the last in 2006, while Welsh back Gavin Henson remains the only other Briton to have won the prize, back in 2001.
Ford said: “It’s a massive honour especially when you consider the calibre of player who have won it in the past as well as the others (Cane and Whitelock) nominated. I couldn’t believe it when I found out to be honest, but I’ve got to be quick to point out that rugby is not an individual sport. All of the lads were awesome throughout the whole campaign and I’d like to think that I’m picking the award up on behalf of them.”
In a season that resulted in nine wins and just the one reverse, Ford scored 76 points in England’s RBS 6 Nations Grand Slam triumph and another 54 in the IRB Junior World Championship, but he says that completing the Slam in Ireland’s back yard is the memory he’ll treasure most.
“Winning the Grand Slam in Ireland was a massive highlight,” he said. “To remain unbeaten against the calibre of sides we played against took some doing, but we performed well each time we took to the field. Getting to the final of the Junior World Championship was also a great achievement, and it’s just a shame that we fell just short against a strong New Zealand side.”
Previous winners of the award include the likes of Luke McAlister, Isaia Toeava, Jerome Kaino and Tatafu Polota-Nau, so while Ford is in good company, the Oldham born No. 10 insists that he’s just concentrating on his own blossoming career for now.
He added: “I really am just taking it each game as it comes, my focus is on Leicester at the moment and will switch to England during the U20 6 Nations, but there are a fair few established names that have won the award in the past and it’s a massive honour to be part of them now.”
England U20 Head Coach Rob Hunter said: “This is a massive achievement for George and fantastic recognition for him, his family and his club. He was the youngest player in our squad last season, and his success reflects well on the rest of the U20 players and the effort they all put in last season.”
“George’s influence on the pitch and off it was enormous; he works extremely hard to maintain his high levels of performance and is a pleasure to work with as a coach. He’s a key player and we’re looking forward to having him back in the U20s for the 6 Nations and the Junior World Championship”
“This award for George is also a great advert for player development in England. He has come up through the age grades and is playing Aviva Premiership rugby with Leicester Tigers, a great testament to George, and the development work going on in the Clubs”