As a London Broncos season ticket holder I can put my hand on my heart and confess there have been few highlights at the Hive this year. However, a lunch held before the Wigan game certainly proved to be a great occasion; 3 rugby league greats turned out and basically had some banter and answered questions once a very tasty lunch had been eaten. Alongside Martin Offiah and Shaun Edwards was Mike Ford a man I felt would be very interesting to talk to as he’d gone from being a well-known and highly regarded rugby league player to being Head Coach at Bath Rugby.
There have been ex league players coaching in the international game for years but as far as I know Mike’s the first Head Coach of a Premiership club from the same background. On the basis of if you don’t ask you don’t get I accosted (gently) Mike for a photo and asked for an interview at the same time. He kindly agreed.
A quick mention of Broncos again before I go further; I set off down the M4 to Bath after watching them WIN their first game of the season; beating Leeds Rhinos in a thrilling game! So to a degree I floated down the motorway! By a wonderful coincidence the date agreed saw Wigan Warriors arrive at the Bath training ground to spend a few days swapping training tips with Bath Rugby. Cue the floating again; both codes in one place? My idea of heaven! More of that in another piece.
I had one real worry about interviewing Mike, I had a real feeling he was a funny/witty man, with plenty of banter in his armoury, I felt I might just spend an hour laughing then find I had no notes! So I was very determined to make sure I asked lots of pertinent questions – and typed as I did! I also did my homework as any ‘journalist’ (sort of) should do; the suggestion that constituted stalking started me on the laughing thing almost straight away; it was looking dicey! I’m pleased to say I have a full set of notes though, so here we go!
Mike Ford was brought up in Saddleworth; he started playing rugby league at Junior School at 8 or 9, amazingly playing in the Challenge Cup curtain raiser in 1977 for Oldham against Hull! He was on the winning side while still in Junior School. When it came to secondary school he attended Saddleworth School, where a certain Phil Larder was Head of PE. As with many events in Mike’s life that choice of school was to have a huge say in his future. His year was the 2nd to have a league team and as is often the way with specific years going through a school as a group they excelled at most sports beating most of the teams put in front of them. At 16 Mike decided that his future lay with the round ball and he took a year off from rugby with the aim of winning an apprenticeship. That wasn’t to be but he signed as an amateur for Oldham Athletic.
As an amateur Mike was able to play rugby as well as football; his 1st game back was with Oldham St Anne’s where at approaching 17 he played for the U19’s. He received a phone call from Wigan on his 17th birthday and he signed a contract with them. That contract was put away in a safe as he was taking off to play for Great Britain Amateurs in New Zealand. His debut at 17 was against Oldham, a team including his brother-in-law!
We spoke a little about the conditioning and training that players go through in the game today and Mike explained that weights didn’t feature in his early playing days as a whole. Two top players from Parramatta had come over to join Wigan; Brett Kenny and Steve Ella and for a young player starting out the fact that ‘we don’t do weights’ was a major influence. When weights did appear they took the form of messing about with Multi Gyms when the weather was too bad to be outside.
Wigan who had been a team at the bottom of the 1st Division started winning trophies. With the great Alex Murphy in the team playing a big part. As a team they won the league, the Challenge Cup, the Lancashire Cup, the John Player Cup and the Premiership. During his spell at Wigan Mike was captain for 4 games at the tender age of 19; that was a sign of things to come. The beginning of the end of his time at Wigan came when Andy Gregory was signed from Widnes; with Shaun Edwards also at the club Mike could see that he’d be spending more time on the bench and this wasn’t in his life plan.
It was time for him to head back to Oldham; this time he went as captain for a transfer fee of £65K, a lot of money! We spoke about the whole being a leader thing and whether it was something you had or something you could be taught. We came to the conclusion you were born to it; Mike explained that his position as the ‘cocky’ scrum half gave him that bossy edge!
4 years and 115 games at Oldham saw Mike move to Castleford where he stayed for a similar spell making 116 appearances and being inducted into the Castleford Tigers Hall of Fame. During this time Mike had an eye on his future, he was a fully qualified rugby league coach by the time he was 24, he and Shaun Edwards taking the same course.
Mike and his family made a major move in 1995 heading Down Under to South Queensland; he signed a 3 year deal, but my ‘stalking’ told me that the move only lasted for a year. The family were happy but things were changing in English rugby with the advent of Superleague. Warrington and Leeds both came after Mike with the Wolves winning the race. His time at Warrington wasn’t a highlight of his career and it wasn’t long before he found himself back at Castleford playing as captain against Leeds days after he signed.
A second successful spell at Castleford was followed by 2 player/coach posts; firstly at Bramley then at Oldham. With the Oldham role being a part time one Mike had time to burn; he was approached by Dukinfield RU who very conveniently trained on a Tuesday and Thursday which fitted in perfectly with the Oldham schedule. This was Mike’s 1st foray into the world of the ‘other’ code and was largely based on the convenience factor.
It’s clear that certain places and people had reappeared in Mike’s life and another person to have a huge influence in the direction he took as Phil Larder. Phil was within the England RU set up and was approached by Ireland to give them his opinion on 3 rugby league coaches to join them as defence coach. They presented him with 3 names; he offered them 3 alternatives including Mike. Eddie O’Sullivan called Mike, met him on the Friday and offered him the job on the Sunday; the basis was to coach the defence for the 6 Nations and the summer tour.
In effect a 100 day contract that could run in tandem with the Oldham job. Oldham weren’t keen on that plan, but Mike already had a glimpse of the future and he resigned; backing himself to take things further in rugby union. The opportunity to work with the likes of Brian O’Driscoll was just too good to turn down. After a good 6 Nations tournament that 100 days turned into an 18 month full time contract, this was extended further after the 2003 World Cup.
Mike’s next move had me a little confused when I did my homework; in 2005 he took the post of Head Coach at Saracens. By his own admission he wasn’t ready and he looked back at an international role as defence coach. The 2 posts were on offer at the same time and Mike found himself waiting on both; England passed their own deadline and the Wales post was offered. Mike accepted the post and England called an hour later; this was the job Mike wanted so he backtracked and started a very successful spell with England. Amongst his record with his country were the following – the least points conceded in the 2009 6 Nations, the least tries conceded in the 2010 6 Nations and the least tries conceded in the 2011 World Cup. None too shoddy to say the least!
5.5 good years at England were damaged slightly by a very choosy article in The Times after the World Cup; but Mike was heading back to club rugby, this time in the 15 man game. He arrived in Bath in May 2012 and was very quickly promoted to Head Coach by the owner Bruce Craig after Gary Gold had moved to the position of Director of Rugby; a post that was to be short lived for Gold as he left the club in 2013. And so Mike Ford’s transformation from rugby league player to rugby union coach was complete. In common with other successful sportsmen I’ve spoken to this is a man who is clear in his own ability being prepared to take risks over his career to achieve his goals.
He now presides over what must be the most spectacular training facility in the Premiership at the club headquarters at Farleigh House just outside Bath. The team achieved great things last season finishing 5th in the table with the same points as 4th placed Harlequins. Having watched the team train and seen how the players interact with each other it’s clear that something special is happening in Bath. I asked Mike about an interview he gave where he spoke about building the squad and making them into a circle or Band of Brothers; that idea came from watching how his 3 sons have interacted over the years. They’ll be a team to fear in 2014/15.
As we finished chatting I had to ask Mike about one player in particular; as a league fan it would have been remiss of me to ignore the signing of Sam Burgess. I somehow think he knew the question was coming and kept his cards close to his chest; he wouldn’t be drawn on my suspicion that we would see Sam playing in the centres. His words on the matter were ‘I want Sam Burgess to be Sam Burgess, not to try and change him into a different player. Bath will come up with a plan that suits his style of play’. With the rugby league pedigree of the Head Coach and the presence of Kyle Eastmond, the former St Helens star it feels like Sam will be at the right club to succeed. He’s an exceptional rugby league player I for one hope he makes the same mark in the 15 man game in the same way that his Head Coach has!