George Ford will relish any opportunity he gets to play scrum-half over the remaining three Rugby World Cup warm-ups, having been designated as emergency cover at No 9 under a plan hatched by Eddie Jones.
Despite captaining England from fly-half at the weekend in the impressive victory over Wales, the 26-year-old faces a good chance of getting minutes at scrum-half depending on the team selections in the remaining Quilter Internationals against Wales, Ireland and Italy.
With Willi Heinz the only natural No 9 to join established first choice Ben Youngs in the 31-man squad announced on Monday, Ford may well be needed to cover scrum-half in Japan if England go all the way to the final – which would in playing seven matches in just six weeks.
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But ever conscious of getting England’s preparations just right, Jones is prepared to give Ford his first competitive minutes at international level before jetting out to the Far East.
“I’d look forward to it,” Ford said. “Any time I’ve played or trained there I’ve actually really enjoyed it. You’re in the game constantly, obviously you’re doing a lot more running from ruck to ruck and behind the defensive line but you’re always in the game which is where I like to be, involved and keeping busy.
“The skillset of running, passing, kicking, it’s not too dissimilar to what I do already, it’s just one closer in to the forwards. I’d look forward to it.”
The skills required to play half-back may be very similar to what Ford deploys now, but the duties of a nine are very different. Rather than marshalling the back line, Ford will need to order the pack around the field, though the chance to get into the forwards is not one that he will pass up.
“I might do actually, they don’t listen to me where I am now!” he joked. “One closer in might be a bit helpful for me, but obviously I’m good mates with people like Ben Youngs and Willi’s been awesome since he came in. To see how they go about their stuff day-in, day-out and have a chat to them about those things would be great.”
Ford’s experience in the position stems from his early days in rugby league, before the move down south to Harpenden and an early code switch. He admits that the roles of a dummy-half in league and scrum-half in union do differ, but the basic responsibilities are where his confidence that he can support Youngs and Heinz stems from.
“I grew up playing rugby league, I wouldn’t say I was playing nine in a rugby union sense but I think there are skillsets of growing up playing nine that involve doing a lot of passing and running. It pretty much suits that position really.
“I’ve only had a couple of goes playing nine when someone is in the sin-bin and I’ll cover for 10 minutes and then they’ll take over, but I’ve trained enough time there under Eddie – especially within Six Nations campaigns in fallow weeks. I’ve always had opportunities to spend the weeks training nine with people like Ben Youngs which is good.”
But the decision from Jones is not based on the desire to see Ford at nine – far from it. The only reason that he will find himself in the position will be if injury strikes Youngs or Heinz before a replacement can fly out, or one of them requires a rest.
It’s the positives behind taking only two scrum-halves frees up an additional place elsewhere in the squad, which in this case allowed Jones to take six players capable of filling the back three and secured Ruaridh McConnochie’s place on the plane.
“It is one of those balance of the squad things,” explained the head coach. “I think the most injury-prone areas at the moment are outside backs because of the amount of high-speed running they have to do now. If you look at the Test on Sunday compared to the Six Nations Test there was 30 per cent more high-speed running.
“The physical demands of the game for the outside backs now are enormous because of the kick-chase and the kick-sprint. We didn’t feel we could go one short in that area and we have taken a gamble.”