George Ford and England’s back-line look lost

George Ford - George Ford and England’s back-line core look lost
George Ford threw some uncharacteristically poor passes in the defeat in Edinburgh - PA/Andrew Milligan

If there is one moment that sums up the ‘what the hell?’ nature of England’s clunky performance against Scotland, it was of George Ford firing a pass straight at the face of George Furbank. Ten seconds and a blur of burly South African thighs later, Duhan van der Merwe scores his second try to provide Scotland with a lead that they would never relinquish.

Two years previously, the defining image of England’s defeat at Murrayfield was of Luke Cowan-Dickie flailing at Finn Russell’s crossfield kick which resulted in a penalty try and yellow card. The mitigation for Cowan-Dickie was that he was a hooker accidentally stationed on the wing, a fish out of water ruthlessly targeted by Russell.

Mitigation for Ford, one of best passers and game-managers in the history of English rugby, is much harder to find. In that particular passage, Ford received the ball well behind the gainline with the Scottish defence standing off him. With Sam Underhill running a decoy line, Ford had four players outside him, but could only locate the bonce of Furbank.

Nor was this a particular aberration in his performance. Just two minutes previously off a first-phase set-piece attack, Ford again mistimed a pass to Furbank, which he spilled. Ollie Lawrence was also on the end of a highly unsympathetic bullet of a delivery.

Some fly halves, Marcus Smith or Danny Cipriani, will light up a game through their own individual brilliance. Ford’s great skill has always been to give others the spotlight through his innate anticipation of not only where space will appear but where his team-mates will be. In short, he makes those around him look better. Against Scotland, he seemed to be operating on an entirely different wavelength to his outside backs.

An explanation was hard to come by. “Some of them are just unexplainable why you drop the ball cold sometimes,” Ford said. “Some of it is the realism of being in the middle of a Test match and everything is 100mph and there’s pressure on you and the execution is not as good as it needs to be. Some of it is that but we are not making excuses because it was nowhere near good enough.

“It was just a bit of chaos. It was a bit chaotic. We couldn’t get enough control or enough field position and it seemed to be a very unstructured game and Scotland light up off unstructure. That’s not the type of game you want against them.”

Head coach Steve Borthwick pointed out the settled nature of Scotland’s 10-12-13 combination versus the Ford, Lawrence and Slade who were starting their first game together as a trio. Yet with 355 caps – 94 of which belong to Ford – this was hardly a rookie backline who have never met each other before and yet they played like total strangers.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that either the Premiership provides an unrealistic magnifying glass for the form and talent of players such as Ford, Lawrence and Slade or that England’s attack coaching is not prioritised as it should be. Remember Borthwick brought in Andrew Strawbridge as a skills consultant in addition to Kevin Sinfield acting as skills coach under Richard Wigglesworth as attack coach. If England had practised passing at any point in the past two weeks, there was no evidence of it on Saturday.

So what now for Ford? It should be stated that Ford was far from alone in performing below expectations. He played a central role in Furbank’s brilliantly worked try, struck a beautiful drop goal and also stripped Van der Merwe of the ball which was the closest England got to the winger all day.

Remember it was not too long ago that the 30-year-old was responsible for almost single-handedly delivering the signature victory of the Borthwick era, the 27-10 World Cup win against Argentina when England were down to 14 men. Yet he was still dropped once Owen Farrell had served his suspension.

Telegraph Sport also understands that until Marcus Smith suffered a calf injury at their Girona training camp, Ford was not pencilled in to be in the Six Nations matchday squad with youngster Fin Smith ahead of him on the bench. Borthwick cannot complain about a lack of cohesion if he is constantly chopping and changing his main playmakers. And if Marcus Smith is not ready, when would you start Fin Smith? England’s next run of fixtures – Ireland at home, France away, a tour of New Zealand and a brutal autumn series – have “baptism of fire” written all over them. This equally applies to Chandler Cunningham-South or Immanuel Feyi-Waboso.

Borthwick made some pointed comments about England’s decision-making process after dominating the opening quarter which seemed directed towards the half backs of Care and Ford. The fact that Ford was replaced after an hour mark when the game was still in the balance seems telling. Starting or dropping Ford next week might just be the biggest call of Borthwick’s reign.

Victory against Ireland at home or France away, which suddenly seems a lot more achievable, is critical to validating his mission statement. Otherwise all his talk of building, projects and journeys will sound suspiciously similar to the years of Eddie Jones’ hot air – and we all know how that ended.