Ford not afraid to go off beaten path to find a way past Leinster
Former Ireland coach's career has been based on innovative systems
Published 04/04/2015 | 02:30
Mike Ford has found himself in many a yellow wood - always, he has sought the road less travelled and then, rarely, has he stayed in the middle of it.
Too easy to get flattened by oncoming traffic, you see. The Bath side he will bring to Dublin this afternoon personifies his life's work and philosophy.
They seek evasion where others seek collision, instead of hammering the door down, they try to unlock it.
Strange to think, then, that the brightest talents of English rugby union are being shepherded by a former Ireland coach who hails from rugby league country but who could have chosen a professional soccer career.
That's a lot of what could have beens right there.
Even when he plumped for that rugby league career, with the giants of them all, Wigan Warriors, those itchy feet that have made Ford swerve all his life compelled him to leave the club just as they embarked upon the most successful period in their history.
"Yeah, I flirted with soccer," says the 49-year-old, who joined Oldham Athletic as a professional, before belatedly changing their minds a year later when they wanted him to re-sign as an amateur. "No thanks."
And so he returned to his first love, rugby league. Most children of the late 1980s could name the Wigan Warriors side - thing is, Ford felt his should have been there too.
He was a chippy 21-year-old scrum-half but Andy Gregory was already there and Shaun Edwards was emerging - but Ford demanded a start!
"I probably got the Wigan decision wrong. I know I ended up playing for my country but they won eight Challenge Cups in a row, I could have stayed and become a better player and been better coached. Then things happen for a reason."
He signed for Castleford and had some success there but not enough to fend off his eternal wanderlust.
"So I went to Australia in '95, me and the young family down in South Queensland so that was an adventure, something different. We took a risk and it worked out.
"When we came back, I linked up with Oldham and we'd made it to the Challenge Cup with me as player-coach and then…"
And then? "And then I took the six month gamble."
How Mike Ford signed for Ireland is a well-worn tale around these parts. The significance it had on the then 36-year-old Ford's career was incalculable.
"Signing for Ireland was the best decision I ever made," he says, simply.
The six-month gamble seemed an overly optimistic punt in the early days: after chasing Graham Henry out of a job with a 54-10 win - "I got the headlines but it was nothing to do with defence" - Ireland were coursed around Twickenham a fortnight later in a 45-11, six-try pummelling.
Mike McGurn, then the fitness coach and another recruit from the dreaded 'league' code, turned to his new colleague and suggested they bail out. But something happened in the team's CityWest base a few days later that may have altered the course of his, and Ireland's, rugby history.
As Ford awaited an inevitable tirade from a group of suspicious players who, apart from struggling to understand his thick Lancashire tongue, were clearly miles away from absorbing his teaching, Denis Hickie addressed the squad.
"Nothing that happened on Saturday is because of what Mike told us," said the winger. "Let's give him a go." Kevin Maggs added assent with a "Hear, hear!" Ford remained parked in Ireland - within two years they had breached a generation gap by claiming a Triple Crown, sowing the seeds for future triumphs.
"I wanted to get out early on because I didn't know what I was doing," he recalls. "The World Cup in '03 was the turning point, we had got to third in the world and I was getting to grips with the game. I loved my time with Ireland. I was the first defence coach so they couldn't say whether I was rubbish or not because there was nobody to compare me with!
"It's not rocket science. You get the best people for the best roles, so that could be moving David Wallace to cover for David Humphreys. It was common sense to me and coaching is common sense."
As soon as he helped Ireland find his feet, though, Ford sensed that his needed to move once more.
We recall him as defence coach on the unwieldy Lions tour in 2005 bemoaning the lack of skills in union compared to league - hence his comments last month were hardly novel - and presumed he would return to the 13-man code.
Instead, as he angled for - and was politely but curtly refused - a greater attacking input with Eddie O'Sullivan's Ireland, he opted to join Saracens as a head coach in 2005.
Another impetuous move and this time he really did end up in the ditch.
"I had itchy feet, I was too much in a hurry to become a head coach and I went to Saracens. I wanted to become a skills coach but Eddie wanted me to stay where I was and I could understand why. I wasn't ready for Saracens. Luckily, I went to England and it worked out."
He spent five years with England, helping them to a World Cup final along the way in 2007, but the desire to be his own man always remained.
In 2011, he got the chance with Bath. Only this time he was ready to implement his singular vision for the game.
Instead of moving attackers around the field, Ford, as he did with Humphreys and Wallace more than a decade ago, moves defenders too. But he is not a slave to league and its oft-criticised defensive reliance.
"I built my reputation on 10 years as a defence coach. I'd get plaudits when we didn't concede but I'd be thinking 'God, the attack was awful'. I was lucky that, in general, attacking teams would run across the field and make defence pretty easy.
"All I've done is counter-act it, I've just turned things around into what I didn't want an attacking team to do to me. I'd rather win the game and let in four tries, than concede none and lose.
"I still think there's too much structure in the game. If you watch enough rugby, and you're a good defensive coach, you can negate everything.
"I'd be gutted if somebody analyses Bath and says they know what we're doing from a six-man line-out. I don't want ever to be that structured.
"Weapons all over the park. Sometimes, I'm not sure what we'll do. Because often we don't make decisions until the defender makes theirs first."
This is one Ford that is never happy driving in the middle of the road.