How soon is now? Ford’s fight with the Smiths for England No 10 spot

<span>‘When I was younger ... you get dropped, you are rock bottom and it is a rollercoaster ride,’ says George Ford.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection/Getty Images</span>
‘When I was younger ... you get dropped, you are rock bottom and it is a rollercoaster ride,’ says George Ford.Photograph: Dan Mullan/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

There may be names printed on players’ shirts nowadays but the No 10 jersey still has a special resonance when England play Wales at rugby union. For better or worse, the occupants carry a greater weight of national expectation than anyone else. It is not just Welsh fly-halves who operate in the shadow of former legends and feel history’s hoary hand upon their shoulders.

George Ford is a prime example. This will be his 93rd cap for England but, even now, there is a faint sense of him striving to cement a regular starting place. It has been ever thus: after his World Cup drop goal masterclass against Argentina last year he was swiftly ousted by the returning Owen Farrell while the Smiths, Marcus and Fin, are now nipping at his heels. As the Sale pivot murmured this week: “Maybe I should have played scrum-half.”

Related: Jamie George urges England to ‘show passion’ in Six Nations battle with Wales

This weekend, though, he is well and truly centre stage. No Owen, no Marcus, just a consummate pro whose Test career has incorporated plenty of keynote England-Wales games. His debut came as a replacement in this fixture a decade ago before he was frustratingly dropped to the bench for the fateful 2015 World Cup pool game – “Maybe one I didn’t deal with the best” – the following year. A cool goal-kicking display beneath Cardiff’s Friday night lights in February 2015, an assist role in Elliot Daly’s late match-winning try in 2017 ... with 11 wins and three defeats against Wales the good days comfortably outnumber the bad.

That said, it has rarely been a straightforward selectorial journey. “I have been through all the emotions: frustrated, disappointed, gutted, angry. When I was younger ... you get dropped, you are rock bottom and it is a rollercoaster ride. Whereas now, you still go through the same emotions but it is about how quickly you can get back to accepting what your role is. When you don’t play as well as you like, you’re not in good form and you don’t get the spot ... it is those moments that really test you and show you who you are. Do you throw your toys out of the pram or think, ‘No, stuff this’ and come back better from it?”

Along with the importance of backing himself, he also long ago realised the futility of fretting too much about what others think. “Since making my debut, the one constant and consistent thing is the debate around who plays No 10 for England. Even before I came into the England setup ... my dad was coaching and it was exactly the same. It’s always been the case ... I’m not sure why. Everyone’s got their opinion on who should play and the way England should play. You become used to the exterior noise.”

There is still plenty of it around. Ford and Farrell were childhood mates and few can empathise better with the mental pressures that prompted the latter to step away from the national side. In Ford’s case he has become used to compartmentalising such things. “If I focused on what other people think then that takes my concentration down a different path. I don’t want to do that. If some people agree – or don’t – on who should be playing for England, for me that’s massively irrelevant.”

There is absolutely no question, though, that Farrell’s absence has changed the dynamic within this England squad. There is certainly a collective drive to speculate a little more, even if the damp weather forecast proves accurate, with glimpses of a brighter outlook visible during last week’s win in Rome. “I was saying to [attack coach] Richard Wigglesworth that the feel on the field in training, and in the Italy game when we had the ball, was chalk and cheese compared to what it might have been a few months ago,” confirms Ford. “We want to be a dangerous team with ball in hand. We made a decent start last week and we now want to keep that intent and up our execution. There’s only five games in the Six Nations ... you want to make sure that improvement is rapid. We want to improve again this week because, basically, we need to.”

Ford, either way, still believes his own best rugby lies ahead of him. He also knows that if he wants to hold off the talented Smiths he needs to step up without delay in Farrell’s absence. “It is different ... Owen has been a massive leader for us and he stamps his authority on our team. But there is always a time when things change. I think, for me and the other leaders, it is maybe [better] not to try and replicate what it was like with him here and to be a bit more authentic. I know there’s a lot more in me, in certain aspects of my game, which I’m working hard on. I think that’ll always be the case. As soon as you think you’ve nailed it or cracked it, that’s when you get caught out.”

 Freddie Steward (Leicester)
14 Tommy Freeman (Northampton)
13 Henry Slade (Exeter)
12 Fraser Dingwall (Northampton)
11 Elliot Daly (Saracens)
10 George Ford (Sale)
9 Alex Mitchell (Northampton)
1 Joe Marler (Harlequins)
2 Jamie George (Saracens)
3 Will Stuart (Bath)
4 Maro Itoje (Saracens)
5 Ollie Chessum (Leicester)
6 Ethan Roots (Exeter)
7 Sam Underhill (Bath)
8 Ben Earl (Saracens)

Theo Dan (Saracens) 17 Ellis Genge (Bristol) 18 Dan Cole (Leicester) 19 Alex Coles (Northampton) 20 Chandler Cunningham-South (Harlequins) 21 Danny Care (Harlequins) 22 Fin Smith (Northampton) 23 Immanuel Feyi-Waboso (Exeter)

Cameron Winnett (Cardiff)
14 Josh Adams (Cardiff)
13 George North (Ospreys)
12 Nick Tompkins (Saracens)
11 Rio Dyer (Dragons)
10 Ioan Lloyd (Scarlets)
9 Tomos Williams (Cardiff)
1 Gareth Thomas (Ospreys)
2 Elliot Dee (Dragons)
3 Keiron Assiratti (Cardiff)
4 Dafydd Jenkins (Exeter)
5 Adam Beard (Ospreys)
6 Alex Mann (Cardiff)
7 Tommy Reffell (Leicester)
8 Aaron Wainwright (Dragons)

Ryan Elias (Scarlets) 17 Corey Domachowski (Cardiff) 18 Archie Griffin (Bath) 19 Will Rowlands (Racing 92) 20 Taine Basham (Dragons) 21 Kieran Hardy (Scarlets) 22 Cai Evans (Dragons) 23 Mason Grady (Cardiff)

It could well make for a lively contest should Wales come out to play as they did in the second half against Scotland. Ford, for one, is wary of what might unfold. “That’s how dangerous they can be. That’s why I think the start is huge for us this week. I reckon Wales will have taken an awful lot from the Scotland game, in terms of the intensity they want to play at and how different it probably felt in the second half compared to the first. I think they’ll be taking that approach against us.”

Now 30 and a probable future coach in the making, Ford is also well aware the contributions of both himself and his young opposite number Ioan Lloyd will be crucially shaped by the speed of the ruck ball generated in front of them. If that makes the Wales flanker Tommy Reffell perhaps the key man on either side, it will primarily fall to Ford to boss England’s tactical game and, in Farrell’s absence, to kick the all- important goals.

Step forward, then, the men wearing No 10. While Ford never met the late Barry John – “Obviously I have seen footage and I know what a legend of the game he was and what he did for Wales in that No 10 shirt” – he can sense Warren Gatland’s team will be highly motivated. “When something like that happens the whole nation becomes a bit more galvanised.” Victory should be England’s but not if they sit back and simply wait for it to happen.