George Ford: A man's guide to overcoming the odds
Written off as too small for international rugby, George Ford has confounded the doubters and emerged as the man to lead England’s charge for World Cup glory. Sam Rider meets the 22-year-old shaping his home nation’s destiny
Samoa centre Johnny Leota is 10cm taller, 10kg heavier and almost ten neck sizes chunkier than George Ford. And last November, in the young fly-half’s first England start, Leota was fired at Ford like a homing missile of human flesh. Running full tilt, he clattered at face-height into the young fly-half, sending him sprawling across the Twickenham Stadium turf as 80,000 spectators winced. Ford simply rode the challenge. He clung on to the ball, remained alert, and slipped a pass to his team-mate as another Pacific Island giant lined him up.
The resilience Ford showed that night was characteristic of the way he fronts up to a challenge. At only 1.78m tall and 84kg there were doubts he could cut it at international level, but in that 80-minute spell – and in every game since – he’s silenced the critics. He was leading points scorer in this year’s Six Nations Championship, where England came a close second to Ireland on points difference, and in less than a year he’s made the crucial number ten jersey his own.
The Bath playmaker is thriving in a modern game seemingly built for giants, outwitting them using pace, power and speed of thought to overcome any shortcomings in size. And with it, he’s armed England’s ferocious forward pack with an adventurous edge and taken up the mantle from Jonny Wilkinson as England’s talisman ahead of this year’s home World Cup. MF met him on the eve of the tournament to discover how he’s making winning a habit.
WANT IT MORE
‘If you want to achieve success, you have to give it everything you’ve got’
Ford’s roll call of junior honours is impressive. He started playing for England Under-18s when just 15, later becoming captain, and played a key role in the team’s 25-game winning run. At 16 years and 237 days he became the youngest player to appear in a professional match. At 17 he was called up to the Under-20 side that won the Six Nations Grand Slam. Then, despite being the youngest player competing at the 2011 Under-20 Junior World Cup, he led England to the final where they were edged out by New Zealand. His performances earned him the prestigious IRB Junior Player of the Year. But all this success wasn’t handed to him. Never one to wait for good fortune, he had to hunt it down.
Born in Oldham, the son of rugby league legend Mike Ford – now his club head coach at Bath Rugby – he grew up playing school rugby union on Saturdays and amateur rugby league on Sundays. Recognising that the potential for success was greater in the 15-man game, he followed his instincts and joined Leicester Tigers over Bradford Bulls. ‘It was a difficult decision,’ Ford says when we meet him in the midst of England’s summer training camp. ‘I was only 15 but ultimately I thought of what can be achieved in rugby union. I thought if I’m going to give it a crack, then I need to be wholly committed from the off.’
Ford faced another tough call early in his Tigers career. As a highly rated understudy he took the calculated risk to leave the then Premiership champions for Bath, who that season had come a lowly seventh. At the end of the 2014-15 season, 51 appearances and 637 points later for Ford, Bath marched to the Premiership obviously takes his rugby very seriously. I heard he goes goal kicking on Christmas Day – he’s got that kind of mentality. On the field he communicates very well and you know he’s incredibly skilful. He controls the game so well. In the gym and in training he gets stuck in – he always gives 100% for the team and that’s all you can want.’
Ford has also earned the approval of former giants of the game, with 2003 World Cup winner Lawrence Dallaglio endorsing his work ethic. ‘He’s incredibly passionate,’ says the former England number eight. ‘He’s clearly a huge talent with a lot of ability but that should be no surprise because he’s always practising his skills.’
SET HIGH STANDARDS
‘Work harder than your rivals, set new standards, go that extra mile’
Thorough preparation is certainly a prerequisite in modern rugby union, and the step up to international rugby is steep. Compared with Premiership club rugby, ball-in-play time increases from 37 minutes to 45 minutes in an 80-minute match. Average distance covered grows from 7,500m to 9,000m, and the drop-off in intensity is also significantly different: in club rugby the distance covered by all the players drops 16% in the second half, but in internationals the drop is half that.
The 2015 World Cup is destined to unite the fastest, strongest and fittest group of players the game has ever produced, and each nation has devised sadistic training methods to make theirs the best. England have Matt Parker, former director of marginal gains for British Cycling, as head of athletic performance. ‘We’ve been doing four weights sessions, two speed sessions and two conditioning sessions each week,’ says Ford. ‘It’s probably the hardest couple of weeks I’ve ever had in pre-season.’
The day before our shoot, the England players were subjected to their most gruelling fitness session yet. On the hottest day of the British summer, the 50-man squad underwent a Yoyo fitness test, akin to the bleep test but demanding even greater acceleration, endurance and recovery.
‘You have to sprint about 20m and back before a beep, rest for five seconds, and repeat as the beeps get closer together,’ says Ford, who reveals he came joint second. Four weeks later, after England have scaled the mountains of Denver for oxygen- depleted altitude training to improve the efficiency of their blood in refuelling their muscles, they will have to repeat the test. Anyone failing to improve on their scores is liable to be cut from the team.
‘Straight after, without any time to recover, we went into more fitness sessions and game scenarios,’ Ford says, still visibly fatigued by the previous day’s exertions. ‘It was pretty horrific but I understand what the coaches are trying to do. If we can keep our skills high and our minds clear when we’re almost dead, we’ll be able to stay in the game against the top teams for the full 80 minutes and beyond. Putting the hard graft in as a squad brings us together, and training harder than you have to perform in a match means when it comes to the game, you should be able to play harder than you’ve ever done before and set new standards.’
‘On the pitch, in the gym, in the everyday, you have to earn respect first’
When we see Ford up close and personal it’s easy to see why Leota struggled to make a dent in the Englishman’s rock-solid frame. ‘I enjoy the physical part of the game, be it on the pitch or in the gym,’ he says, in typically no-nonsense fashion. ‘As a fly-half you’re the front line of defence and the number one target in attack. You have big guys running at you all the time so you’ve got to be ready.’
Ford is always brave on the pitch. He takes risks, running up to the line of opposition brutes bearing down on him, before deftly flicking the ball to an arcing team-mate to slice through and score. That confidence with ball in hand stems from a physical confidence in his body – that it will stand up to the challenge. ‘George understands that conditioning work in the gym lets him play the game the way he wants to,’ says Bath’s strength and conditioning coach Allan Ryan.
Ford’s full-body workout on p53]. ‘He enjoys hard, tough gym sessions. He’s always pushing himself to surpass his previous scores, and you can see when he plays that his acceleration and high fitness levels allow him to make those crucial decisions late in the game when others are wilting from fatigue. His mental strength is underpinned by the knowledge that he has prepared as well as he can.’
Of course, Ford has had to work hard to build his robust physique. ‘In the past I’ve had trouble with putting bulk on,’ Ford says. ‘Training harder in the gym, doing weights, can only help so much. Looking after your body, eating the right things, keeping well hydrated and recovering well is just as important.’ At Bath special attention is paid to nutrition. Every member of the squad adheres to the club’s nutritional ten commandments on top of which each player has a tailored supplement menu that supports their training programme.
Ford takes BCAAs and creatine before and during workouts to protect his body from the ravages of training and allow him to push beyond his limits. After training he takes whey protein, a carbohydrate supplement in powder form (at a ratio of 1:2 for protein to carbs) and another dose of creatine to replenish and rebuild his muscles. He’s also prescribed 100,000IU of vitamin D for good bone health and to support his immune system. ‘Our diet is pretty strict,’ says Ford. ‘I eat carbs with every meal, whether sweet potato, rice or other sources. And I couldn’t live without a rib-eye steak two to three times a week.’
The modern rugby player pays special attention to recovery too. Whereas formerly training would be followed by late night drinking sessions in the clubhouse, today they use ice baths, cryotherapy chambers and regular sports massage to reverse the damage they inflict on each other on the pitch and on themselves in the weights room. Personal bests are also regularly recorded, partly to make sure they’re not at risk of burning out, but also for valuable ego boosts.
The players track their scores for the bench pull, bench press, bench throw and reactive jump over time, as well as using wellbeing questionnaires and tracking GPS data from matches and training. If the scores are going up, the feedback gives the players renewed confidence; if they’re going down, it’s a good indication of fatigue and the coaches will reduce their workload. Bath
Rugby also use short, max-effort Wattbike sprints to measure peak power output. Players do two six-second sprints aiming to generate as much power as possible. Ford’s average is just under 1,900 watts. ‘If your score is below 90% of your average it’s something to be mindful of when planning max power or speed sessions,’ says Allen.
SEIZE YOUR CHANCE
‘You have to enjoy it. You have to want to be part of it.’
Ford was in year six at school when Jonny Wilkinson slotted the iconic drop goal that won England the World Cup in 2003. Afterwards Wilkinson was exalted to almost messiah-like national status. But he wore the adoration like a burden, leading to stress, repetitive injury and self-doubts over his ability. This year, before a drop goal has even been lined up, the spotlight on Ford is already fierce.
‘It’s going to be on an even bigger scale,’ says Ford, who already has one successful drop goal in the bank from his 11 caps to date. ‘I’m relishing being in that position. World Cups don’t come around very often, especially in your own country. You have to enjoy it. You have to want to be part of it. Rather than just play in it I’m going to attack it. This is an opportunity for us to do something really special.’
With those defiant words, Ford leads us out of the studio to a car park on an industrial estate for the final few shots. To underline his commitment to the cause he begins practising his drop kicks and we’re quickly joined by a few builders on their lunch break. ‘Lads, it’s England’s playmaker! It’s George Ford!’ says one of them to his confused colleagues, before catching Ford’s kick and rushing to take a selfie with our humble champion.
The blank looks on the other builders’ faces reveals that Ford’s national status is far from Wilkinson fever-pitch – for now. From the World Cup kick-off on 18th September to the final on 31st October, you can bet he’ll do everything in his powers to help England lift the coveted Webb Ellis Cup. And by that time, everyone will know his name.
Published by Men's Fitness in the October 2015 issue ahead of the Rugby World Cup.