“Rugby is about connections,” says John Fletcher, one of the first coaches to pick Ford and Farrell together, when he selected the two, then 15 and 16 respectively, for the England Under-18 side that toured Argentina in 2008. They had also previously complemented one another at Under-16 level too. Over a decade later and the two spent the weekend dismantling Ireland, in the same composed way they used to dominate age grade rugby.
The Ford and Farrell story is easy to romanticise: two young lads who grew up as the sons of rugby league royalty in Greater Manchester, who went to school together, who were playing league against each other back when they were 12, and who ended up living next door to one another when Mike Ford made Andy Farrell his statement signing having taken over Saracens in 2005. On the pitch this closeness manifests itself in an intuitive knowledge of one and others game.
“You could tell they liked each other. They are fond both of each other’s abilities and each other’s personalities,” according to Fletcher, “they are very similar in lots of ways – both very driven, very determined, quite obsessive with their practice and preparation, and they spent so much time together they built an awareness of what the other one was going to do before he did it.”
However, beneath all the nostalgia, friendship and media narrative, there is a playing partnership that could steer England to World Cup glory. It was the Ford/Farrell axis that was so crucial to Eddie Jones in the series win in Australia, and 2016 Grand Slam, and now he looks to be returning to that combination.
Having two natural fly halves on the field gives England the tactical flexibility, vision and deftness of touch to find their strike runners in space. Against Ireland, the early set play score, from a left sided scrum, was a prime example of this. Vunipola popped the ball wide away from the scrum to Youngs, which allowed England’s 9, 10, and 12 to take the ball flat to the line, fix their men and put Cokanasiga away out wide.
Ford and Farrell are quality communicators, distributors and place kickers. Granted, they had the advantage of a pack securing continual front foot ball against a soft, slow and disjointed Ireland, but the signs are promising.
Furthermore, in moving Tuilagi to outside centre you free him up to attack wider channels, where he can run hard from out to in. England used his threat as an effective decoy for Cokanasiga’s second score. There is a sense that 12 he is far more likely to be contained by heavy traffic, and so shifting Manu out one is another incentive for Jones.
If Eddie does decide to back the Ford/Farrell combination once again, it would be undoubtedly harsh on Henry Slade, who has been one of England’s best players in the last year. Also an age group fly half, Slade, at 6”3, offers a greater physical presence than Ford. Indeed, the midfield of Farrell, Tuilagi and Slade was excellent in Dublin in spring, but the advantages of playing Tuilagi wider could force Slade, when fit, to play 12 – not a role he is particularly experienced in.
Jones clearly rates Ford. He has made him his captain on occasion. In the past he has stated Ford / Farrell, “can’t be coached,” suggesting that such is the depth of their understanding of the game they effectively coach themselves. It is possible that the reason he chose not to select Cipriani is because he always intended to return to the symbiotic Ford / Farrell midfield.
Only time will tell, Farrell and Tuilagi will both undoubtedly start, and their fitness will be pivotal to England’s World Cup hopes, but with both Ford and Slade as options, England will have an envious degree of tactical flexibility come the World Cup.
Written by Joe Ronan