“I think George [Ford] can be better than Beauden Barrett.”
Those were the words of England head coach Eddie Jones at the weekend, after he witnessed the young fly-half pull the strings in a comfortable 58-15 victory over Fiji.
Meanwhile, a few hundred miles away in Dublin, the recently crowned World Rugby Player of the Year, Barrett, was putting in a masterful display against Ireland and proved the difference in New Zealand’s vengeful 21-9 win.
Every rugby-following man, woman and child around the world is well-aware of Jones’ unique brand of motivational techniques and man management and though as a statement it does need to be taken with a pinch of salt, there is substance to it.
The quality of opposition that England have faced so far this autumn, a plummeting Springbok side and a disjointed Fijian team, must be taken into account when dolling out accolades, but there is a case to be made that the English backline is playing as fluently as they have at any point since Sir Clive Woodward’s side lifted the Webb Ellis Cup all the way back in 2003.
Ford has a lot to do with that.
As a group, the backline is still a long way from where Jones wants it to be by the time the 2019 Rugby World Cup rolls around but the signs of progress are uplifting for those who have suffered through the handling errors, poor passing and butchered overlaps of English rugby for much of the last 13 years.
The composure Ford now displays in the pivotal ten jersey is a symbol of his maturation not only as a rugby player, but specifically as a Test player.
Where he used to be flustered when put under pressure, often compounding slow ball with passes deep behind the gain line that left second receivers stranded, he now keeps it simple. He is unafraid to take the hit and allow his team to set-up and try again on the next phase, or he simply pops the ball to a forward and allows them to take the contact.
Similarly, his tactical kicking used to be a real area of concern when defenders were able to get in his face and he tended to lose cohesion with his chasers, often outkicking them or worse, kicking out on the full.
The evolved and refined Ford who now takes the field is not so easy to rattle.
His partnership with Owen Farrell has been key to taking England’s backline play to the next level, with the former England U20 teammates gelling better than most could have hoped for at the beginning of Jones’ tenure.
In fact, with Ford at 10, Farrell has become one of, if not the most devastating decoy runner in Test rugby. Scoff at that all you will, but go back and re-watch the games against South Africa and Fiji.
Farrell doesn’t just draw one or two defenders with his runs, he regularly draws three. One defender is fixed by his threat as a carrier and the defenders inside and outside of the prospective tackler are also kept on their heels by the threat of Farrell’s ability to distribute in either direction.
This allows Ford to utilise the drawback pass, a favoured move of this new-look England side, and create space and quick width on the ball that defences are struggling to deal with. He’s also then able to feed out wide and act again as a first receiver in the next phase, with the inside and outside options on Farrell’s shoulders usually securing quick ball at the ensuing ruck.
On a side note, this is where the work-rates of Chris Robshaw, Courtney Lawes and Dan Cole have been invaluable in helping the back line thrive.
It’s this space and speed that England’s back line is built to prosper with and though Farrell may be the general of the group, Ford is stepping up as quite the lieutenant.
However, comparisons with Barrett, as well as Ford has been playing, are going to be unflattering.
Ford may have Barrett’s number as a goalkicker but that is mitigated by the fact that it is a skill he doesn’t currently require at Test level, with Farrell shouldering those responsibilities for England.
It’s difficult to find another area where you could argue Ford surpasses Barrett, with the Kiwi a devastating runner, who plays the kicking game as if he has the ball on a piece of string. Defensively, the pair are comparable and there certainly isn’t much between them in their ability to bring others into play around them, although this is an area where Barrett has proven his worth more regularly than Ford at Test level.
Of course, Jones didn’t say that Ford is as good or better than Barrett, simply that he could surpass him in the future.
It’s hard to see Ford developing that same danger as a runner that Barrett possesses, the All Black is simply faster over the ground and at the heart of a system that exposes mismatches and throws all its momentum behind exploiting them with ball in hand, but there is no reason why he cannot overtake Barrett in other areas.
Kicking, defence and game management may not be as eye-catching as the tries that Barrett seemingly creates from nothing, but they are areas that are just as critical to winning rugby and they are areas where Ford has taken big strides in over the last 12 months.
It will be interesting to see the career choices Ford makes at club level over the coming months as they will have a direct bearing on his development as a Test player.
Jones has more access to his players than any other England coach in the professional era, but it’s the club coaches, who will work with Ford all year round, who will have the biggest opportunity to shape his continued evolution as a player.
At just 23 years of age, Ford’s best years are still ahead of him and if he can keep Farrell in the 12 jersey with his performances at fly-half and find the right fit at club level, then catching the Kiwi might not be as preposterous as it initially sounds.