Today’s Leicester Mercury reports that George Ford will leave at the end of the season and join Bath. Tigers have offered him a two year deal, described as “lucrative”, but apparently what he is really after is a guarantee of “game time”. Given he currently has had more game time than Toby Flood he clearly doesn’t mean any old game time he means he wants to be first choice for the Heineken Cup and top of the table Premiership clashes. This is very admirable you wouldn’t want a player in the squad who doesn’t want to play in the important games, but he seems to want to start regardless of form. Ford is a good young player who has become Premiership class very quickly, but based on their 10 odd starts each this year I can’t fathom how he can honestly expect to start ahead of Toby Flood.
It is worth remembering the pickle we were in at Fly Half before we signed Flood from Falcons. We’d had success with a young Andy Goode being mentored by Pat Howard then tried every man and his dog before going back to Goodey to steer the ship. Whilst he was at the helm of arguably our best ever side in 2007 even his biggest fans, and I included myself in that, could be left tearing their hair out at his inconsistency. The problem was that you could never tell when he’d play badly or when he’d be the best Fly Half of his generation. He won us as much as he lost but when the offer for his services came in from Brive I think a lot of us were happy to leave on good terms, pocket a transfer fee and try our luck with a talented young lad from Newcastle.
Flood’s transformation from a rather down beat, physically and mentally questionable 22 year old to the strident leader of men he is today has been remarkable. I remember when we signed him Shaun Edwards questioned whether he could lead a club like Leicester, or whether he would wilt under the pressure; he has more than banished the doubters, he is now arguably the biggest influence on the side and the biggest voice within the club. He has brought stability to the side after years of searching for a fly half like Hernandez or Wilkinson and with Allen, Tuilagi and Ben Youngs has formed a mid field foursome that has an incredible track record.
I honestly believe if he hadn’t missed the 2009 Heineken Cup final the Leinster era would have been still born whilst we’d have beaten Harlequins last summer too, just compare the game at the Stoop where he was available to coolly guide the come back and the final with Ford.
Once Ford has laid down what effectively is an ultimatum, it’s him or me, the club was left with no choice. Flood is a mature leader, who’s just approaching his peak, who’s had 5 great years with us and at only 27 is more likely than not to have another 5 great years. How can you really justify destabilising the whole club to massage the ego of a 19 year old who has shown glimpses but no more than that?
I wonder whether Ford has really got what he wanted and whether he has set his sights too high. Did he really enter into negotiations only willing to stay if the club moulded the entire side round him for the next 10 years? Because if what the Mercury says is true then that is the position he has ended up in. I suppose we are only in January and talks would have only started in November at the earliest so perhaps that was his opening gambit. Ford has been told from an early age that he is Jonny Wilkinson re-incarnate and I wonder whether it has gone to his head. Looking at the stark facts he is the youngest ever player for the first team, has played 33 games before his 20th birthday and is currently only being kept out of the side by a 50 cap current England international in the prime of his career. He’s hardly stuck behind some honest John club slogger is he?
Is Bath really where he wanted to go? Moving to a club where his Dad works is a risky business, especially when he will be in direct competition with Tom Heathcote and Ollie Devoto, a year older and younger than him respectively, both of whom are local lads to Bath. Bath is a proud city and there will be significant blocks of support for the two locals until Ford proves that he is well beyond the both of them, and whilst he is doing that the whispers will follow every bad game that he’s only being picked because his Dad’s the coach and that the local boys are being frozen out. I suppose given the stick he’ll get in Leicester for the rest of the year if he hasn’t got a hide as thick as a rhino’s already he will have by June.
But we can’t get too het up about him moving on to further his career, after all it’s the only reason he is with us or in Rugby at all. We signed him from Bradford Bulls in the Superleague at 16 because he felt that there was more money and more glory in Rugby, but before that he’d already been at Wigan. 4 clubs before your 20th birthday is hardly the sign of a man who values loyalty or patience. This isn’t meant to be a character assassination, just presenting some of the facts that might have been missed by other people in the rush to condemn Cockerill for any number of sins. On the positive side there has been next to no discussions about money in the public sphere, so it doesn’t seem to be motivated by cash, unlike Billy Twelvetrees’s two day about turn after Gloucester wafted £50k in his direction.
But that is why it is more baffling and more frustrating. Cockerill does what he thinks is best for the club, he doesn’t hold vendettas and doesn’t really have golden boys (though some seem to be held in much higher regard inside the clubhouse than outside), if Ford had impressed significantly in the ample opportunities he has had or is about to have during the Six Nations he would have been given the shirt.
It is also instructive to think about what sort of development he will get at Bath compared to Tigers. In Leicester he is near as damn it guaranteed Heineken Cup rugby every year and few years outside the play offs, whilst at the moment he won’t play 100% of those games he will play some, this weekend he played in a decisive Heineken Cup winner takes all pool decider against Toulouse; Bath played against Bucharest in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Last season he played in the semi-final and the final of both major domestic competitions, the last time Bath got to the Premiership final was 2004.
At the end of the day though if he wants to leave he wants to leave and we should just take the £45k compensation and move on. If we think Dan Bowden can be our reserve number 10, and given his form for London Irish last year there is every reason to think he can, then he can simply slip into 10 and we can look to recruit a centre or another young fly half.