Tuesday 17 October 2017

George Ford: Peter Stringer babysat me as a kid; I supported Ireland over England

England out-half recalls happy days spent in Ireland more than a decade ago, writes David Kelly

George Ford in training for England last week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
George Ford in training for England last week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

This country may be largely unfamiliar with George Ford as the almost incomprehensibly slight, lissom figure prepares to glide on to the Dublin 4 turf next Sunday afternoon. But Ford shall be intimately acquainted with Ireland.

England may have stumbled upon an accidental back-line but while its pivot may owe his start against Ireland to a smidgeon of fortune, a life of steely purpose has brought him to this point.

Just 21, nurture has propelled him to the point where he may now be poised to lead his country's World Cup assault on home soil.

But he would be nothing without the nature that formed him. And, unmistakably, that environment borrowed, ever so slightly, from the very country that he will seek to conquer this week.

Which is why the oddest of childhood recollections that emanates from his lips seems so jarringly alien.

"I wanted Ireland to win," he says of his boyhood memories. To understand the man, we must remember the child. And the family.

Father Mike was a rugby league stalwart for Castleford, then Oldham; the boys - George and older brother, Joe - would have begun trailing his achievements from their toddling days.

Even at the age of four, they could be seen at Oldham training - by this time Mike had become player-coach - kicking and passing balls to each other at one end of the field as the professionals trained at the other.

Borrowed

Habits were already forming. As Union borrowed from League its vogue of suffocating defensive coaching gurus, the deep northern accent would follow Mike Ford to Ireland in 2002 and a gig with Eddie O'Sullivan.

Some days, when mum Sally Ann wasn't driving the boys up to the local Saddleworth League club outside Oldham, they would follow him to Ireland too.

"There he was, this game little eight-year-old, chasing every one of our dead rugby balls like a buck," recalled Ronan O'Gara recently of the younger brother.

"Few of us were fathers at the time, so you don't pay as much attention as you should to these things. He was Mike Ford's son at Ireland training. That's all we knew."

George watched O'Gara more than O'Gara watched Ford. "I grew up watching a lot of O'Gara when my dad was at Ireland, the way he managed the game," recalls Ford ahead of what may effectively be the 2015 Six Nations title decider next Sunday. His kicking game especially was awesome.

"David Humphreys, Ronan O'Gara, they were all pretty good with me and my brothers, we used to kick balls back for them. All the guys were brilliant with us.

"We went over there a couple of times, went there for a couple of weeks here and there and spent time in camp with my Dad, me and my brother.

"That was a brilliant experience growing up, having the experience to do that, seeing players train like they do, and then going to the massive games at the weekend.

"Paul O'Connell was there, Strings, Quinlan, Donnacha O'Callaghan, people like that."

The names trespass his mind like long-lost memories; the wistful nostalgia might help you forget that this week, O'Connell will be an adversary, rather than an inspiration.

Peter Stringer babysat the boys once, during a pre-2003 World Cup in Limerick; Ford recalled in these pages last year that the Ireland scrum-half brought the brothers to a petrol station for ice cream.

In another of life's unusual twists, Stringer would, much later in life, become a team-mate of the young George at a Bath side coached by Mike. The world turns. More than a decade ago, Ireland was the young George's centre of the universe.

"We would go over to Ireland quite a bit, when it was the old Lansdowne Road," he remembers. "We went to all the games over here, when they were playing Wales, England and Scotland. We went to as many as we could."

He had an Irish jersey before he had an English jersey.

"When Ireland played England at Twickenham, I forget what year, my Dad brought me into the Ireland changing room after the game. Peter was playing 9, he came over and gave me his 9 shirt.

Shirt

"I was still young but it fitted me anyway because he was that small! I still have that shirt now. I remind him about that all the time. He just laughs. He's a brilliant guy, Strings.

"He says it is the weirdest thing now being in the same half-back pairing as me. He soon got used to it."

A rugby life is about compromises. For a young 'un, the emotions were conflicting; an English boy cheering for a different country. One day a year, though, that would all change.

When Ireland played England, dad may have had a professional vocation to fulfil. The boys, though, could not see beyond their heart.

"I was still quite young then and I always wanted the best for my Dad," says Ford. "I wanted Ireland to win. Though it was a bit different when they were playing England.

"Growing up, me and my brothers just used to love watching rugby. It was a massive thing to go to international games like that."

Now they are a routine in his life. Owen Farrell was once a childhood friend whose father, also, was a rugby league coach; he is now the England assistant.

Injury to the Saracens man has opened the door for the enigmatic, expressionist Ford. Many wondered if he would be able to cope with the burden. They always have. When he wasn't in Ireland watching his dad take formative coaching steps, he was making giant strides of his own upon the playing fields of Lancashire; at just eight, he was already playing an age grade above his own.

He made his Premiership debut as - wait for it - a 16-year-old; on his brief returns to Dublin in teenage years, he was predominantly the youngest player on the field. In 2011, a brilliant U20s team featured Ford as its pivot completed their Grand Slam against Ireland; a day later the England seniors, with Mike now aiding his native land, would blow their own Grand Slam chance in Lansdowne Road.

"There was so much build-up to the game and what was riding on it," Ford recalls now. "I think in the end we were well beat that afternoon."

Ford has spoken intently to his childhood friend Farrell about the threat Ireland will pose this weekend.

"He knows a few boys from the Lions tour and his past experiences of playing against Ireland, three times now. Two at home and against Ireland when it was raining and England played with brilliant game management to come away with the result.

"His past experiences, to speak to him about that was brilliant. He said Irish teams are massively emotional but become a lot dependent on the breakdown. That is the way they get into the game, disrupting our ball, getting quick ball while doing it.

"He said Jonny Sexton runs the show for them so try and do things like put him under pressure, kick pressure, all the things we try and do every week anyway. Little things become more important."

His praise for the imperious opposite number Sexton, who emerged unscathed from his Racing Metro outing on Saturday night in their draw with Clermont, is honest.

"He's a brilliant player," enthuses Ford. "You saw at the weekend after being out for 12 weeks to come back and put in a performance like that, he drove Ireland to that win.

"He's just massively influential in that team, everything goes through him. He's got a brilliant rugby brain, he's a very smart player. You can see that over the last two or three years how much he drives teams when he's playing in them.

"The biggest thing is his desire to win and hunger to get the best out of the players on his team, but also his determination to go out and give his best as well."

Both countries meet at the peak of their respective form, albeit Ford's humility swallows the need for improvements.

"I think we're in a good place, not getting carried away by any stretch of the imagination.

"We've had a good review of the Italy game, took some things forward from that, we're placing a massive emphasis of getting the most out of these few days.

"Come the game against Ireland, we'll be in a good place. We'll be ready."

In so many ways, it seems like George Ford has been ready all his life.

 

England aiming to extend their four-midable run

Ireland 9, England 20, Aug 27, 2011

England condemned Ireland to a fourth successive World Cup warm-up on a miserable Dublin afternoon when David Wallace's career was effectively ended.

Manu Tuilagi was the villain; his no-arms tackle bouncing the luckless Munster man into touch and twisting his knee in the process.

Tuilagi's try and Jonny Wilkinson's unerring boot had the visitors ahead at half-time and not even Chris Ashton's sin-binning could stem the tide, as Delon Armitage scored during the winger's second-half absence.

England 30, Ireland 9, Mar 17, 2012

Humiliation for Ireland amidst another downpour as Declan Kidney's men were destroyed at scrum-time during an embarrassing second-half display.

Ireland were in touching distance but when Mike Ross limped off, he freighted his side's chances too as all but six points of England's total derived from the cack-handed Irish scrum.

Ireland 6, England 12, Feb 10, 2013

Owen Farrell was the kicking star again as his four penalties condemned the home side to defeat as Kidney's final campaign in charge of Ireland began to slowly unravel.

England hadn't won here since their 2003 Grand Slam romp but, on a miserable day - surprise, surprise - they ground out a dogged win in the lowest-scoring match in Six Nations history.

England 13, Ireland 10, Feb 22, 2014

New Ireland coach, same story. England, who had only five years earlier endured a run of seven defeats in eight, somehow conspired to stretch their unbeaten run to four, despite trailing 10-3.

Rob Kearney's scintillating score seemed to give Joe Schmidt's side the edge as they chased a Triple Crown but England responded stubbornly in an absolutely titanic struggle on Brian O'Driscoll's final visit to Twickenham, where he equalled the record for international caps.

Jonathan Sexton's second-half slump mirrored that of his side and Danny Care's try offered England the lifeline they needed.

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