What time is it now? Ford’s battle with the Smiths for England No.10

<span>“When I was younger… you get dropped, you’re at rock bottom and it’s a roller coaster ride,” says George Ford.</span><span>Photo: Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection/Getty Images<span> /span>” src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/JI9bnpSoQg.fa1pWmgARLA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/43e242739950b7ffc6ca 6fe506486e90 ” data-src=”https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/JI9bnpSoQg.fa1pWmgARLA–/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjt3PTk2MDtoPTU3Ng–/https://media.zenfs.com/en/theguardian_763/43e242739950b7ffc6ca6fe 506486e90″ /></div>
<p><figcaption class=“When I was younger… you get dropped, you’re at rock bottom and it’s a roller coaster ride,” says George Ford.Photo: Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

These days there may be names printed on players’ shirts, but the No. 10 shirt still has a special resonance when England play Wales in rugby union. For better or worse, residents carry a greater weight of national expectations than anyone else. It’s not just Welsh fly-halves who operate in the shadows of past legends and feel the gray hand of history on their shoulders.

George Ford is a good example. This will be his 93rd cap for England, but even now there is a vague sense that he is aiming to secure a regular starting place. It’s always been that way: after his masterclass drop-goal at last year’s World Cup against Argentina last year, he was quickly dropped by the returning Owen Farrell, with the Smiths, Marcus and Fin now hot on his heels. As the Sale kingpin muttered this week: “Maybe I should have played scrum half.”

Related: Jamie George calls on England to ‘show passion’ in Six Nations clash with Wales

This weekend, however, he is really the center of attention. No Owen, no Marcus, just a consummate professional whose Test career has included many important matches between England and Wales. His debut came as a substitute in this match a decade ago, before being frustratingly benched the following year for the ill-fated 2015 World Cup pool match – “Maybe one I didn’t handle very well”. A cool goal display under the Friday evening lights of Cardiff in February 2015, an assist role on Elliot Daly’s late match-winning try in 2017… with 11 wins and three defeats against Wales, the good days far outweigh the bad.

That said, it has rarely been a simple selection process. “I have experienced all the emotions: frustrated, disappointed, upset, angry. When I was younger… you get dropped, you’re at rock bottom and it’s a roller coaster ride. While now you are still going through the same emotions, but what matters is how quickly you can accept what your role is again. If you don’t play as well as you want, you won’t be in good form and you won’t get the place… it’s those moments that really test you and show who you are. Do you throw your toys out of the stroller or do you think, ‘No, just put this in’ and come back better for it?”

In addition to the importance of supporting himself, he also long ago realized the futility of worrying too much about what others think. “Since my debut, the one constant and consistent thing has been the discussion about who plays number 10 for England. Even before I came to England… my dad was coaching and it was exactly the same. It’s always been that way…I’m not sure why. Everyone has their opinion on who should play and the way England should play. You get used to the outside noise.”

There are still plenty of them around. Ford and Farrell were childhood buddies and few can better empathize with the mental pressure that pushed the latter to step away from the national side. In Ford’s case, he’s gotten used to compartmentalizing such things. “If I focus on what other people think, it takes my concentration down a different path. I don’t want to do that. “If some people agree – or don’t agree – on who should play for England, that is hugely irrelevant to me.”

However, there is absolutely no doubt that Farrell’s absence has changed the dynamics within this England squad. There is certainly a collective urge to speculate some more even if the damp weather forecast proves accurate, with last week’s win in Rome offering a glimpse of better prospects. ‘I said against [attack coach] Richard Wigglesworth said the feeling on the pitch in training and in the match against Italy when we had the ball was a breeze compared to what it could have been a few months ago,” Ford confirmed. “We want to be a dangerous team with ball in hand. We made a good start last week and we now want to maintain and further implement that intention. There are only five games in the Six Nations… you want to make sure things improve quickly. We want to improve again this week, because that is basically necessary.”

Regardless, Ford still believes his own best rugby is ahead of him. He also knows that if he wants to stop the talented Smiths, he must act without delay in Farrell’s absence. “It’s different…Owen has been a huge leader for us and he stamps his authority on our team. But there is always a moment when things change. I think for me and the other leaders it might be [better] not to try to replicate what he was like here and to be a little more authentic. I know there’s a lot more to me, in certain aspects of my game, that I’m working hard on. I think that will always be the case. As soon as you think you’ve nailed it or cracked it, you’re going to get caught.

Freddie Steward (Leicester)
14 Tommy Freeman (Northampton)
13 Henry Slade (Exeter)
12 Fraser Dingwall (Northampton)
11 Elliot Daly (Saracens)
10 George Ford (sale)
9 Alex Mitchell (Northampton)
1 Joe Marler (harlequins)
2 Jamie George (Saracens)
3 Will Stuart (Bad)
4 Maro Itoje (Saracens)
5 Ollie Chessum (Leicester)
6 Ethan Roots (Exeter)
7 Sam Underhill (bath)
8 Ben Earl (Saracens)

Theo Dan (Saracens) 17 Ellis Genge (Bristol) 18 Dan Cole (Leicester) 19 Alex Coles (Northampton) 20 Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins) 21 Danny Care (Harlequins) 22 Fin Smith (Northampton) 23 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter)

Cameron Winnett (Cardiff)
14 Josh Adams (Cardiff)
13 George North (osprey)
12 Nick Tompkins (Saracens)
11 Rio Dyer (Dragons)
10 Ioan Lloyd (Scarlets)
9 Tomos Williams (Cardiff)
1 Gareth Thomas (osprey)
2 Elliot Dee (Dragons)
3 Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff)
4 Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter)
5 Adam Baard (Ospreys)
6 Alex Mann (Cardiff)
7 Tommy Reffell (Leicester)
8 Aaron Wainwright (Dragons)

Ryan Elias (Scarlet) 17 Corey Domachowski (Cardiff) 18 Archie Griffin (Bad) 19 Will Rowlands (racing 92) 20 Taine Basham (Dragons) 21 Kieran Hardy (Scarlets) 22 Cai Evans (Dragons) 23 Mason Grady (Cardiff)

It could be a lively match if Wales played like they did in the second half against Scotland. Ford, for one, is wary of what could unfold. ‘They can be that dangerous. That’s why I think it’s a great start for us this week. I think Wales will have taken a lot away from the Scotland game in terms of the intensity they want to play with and how different it probably felt in the second half compared to the first. I think they will take that approach against us.”

Now 30 and likely a future coach in the making, Ford is also acutely aware that the contributions of both himself and his young counterpart Ioan Lloyd will be crucially determined by the speed of the ruck ball generated for them . If that may well make Wales flanker Tommy Reffell the key figure on both sides, it will primarily be up to Ford to control England’s tactical play and, in Farrell’s absence, score the all-important goals.

Then step forward, the men wearing No. 10. While Ford never met the late Barry John – “I’ve obviously seen images and I know what a legend of the game he was and what he did for Wales in that No 10 shirt” – he feels Warren Gatland’s team is very will be motivated. “When something like this happens, the whole nation becomes a little more galvanized.” Victory should belong to England, but not if they sit back and simply wait for it to happen.

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