It is ‘strange’ without Owen Farrell but England need new leaders – George Ford

England's George Ford during training
George Ford has spent a decade challenging for a starting role with England - Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs

George Ford says a new leadership group is emerging with England after admitting it feels ‘strange’ to be without Owen Farrell.

Ford, poised for a 93rd cap on Saturday at Twickenham, will aim to steer England past Wales to start their Six Nations campaign with two consecutive victories.

The fly-half, 30, has spent a decade challenging for a starting role. In the wake of Marcus Smith’s calf injury, with Farrell opting out of England duty for the foreseeable future, Ford will continue to steward a young team with Fin Smith remaining on the bench.

Ford, one of three designated vice-captains along with Maro Itoje and Ellis Genge, noted that a squad skippered by Jamie George is acclimatising to life without Farrell, his long-time partner in midfield and a team-mate since the pair were in their teens.

Sam Underhill has been earmarked as a more vocal presence and new figureheads, explained Ford, have needed to be true to themselves.

“It is different,” he said of an England set-up without Farrell. “He has been here for so long, he has been such an integral part, he has been our captain, he has been a massive leader for us and he stamps his authority on our team.

“So with him not being here, of course it is different, but there is always a time when things change and I think for us – for me and other leaders – it is maybe not to try and replicate what it was like with him here, but be a bit more authentic [to ourselves] with it. I think Jamie has done that brilliantly.

“The first day at camp, and he is not here, initially it is a bit strange because he is rugby-mad, and he is rugby-obsessed, and a lot of the conversations me and him would have would be about rugby, the game at the weekend, about training, about the game the previous night. Having said that, Marcus and Fin are rugby-mad as well so you grow a relationship with those guys as well.”

Jamie George in training
Jamie George became England's new captain after Owen Farrell withdrew from the international game - Shutterstock/Andrew Fosker

Having made his Test debut against Wales in the 2014 Six Nations, replacing Farrell for the last two minutes of a 29-18 triumph at Twickenham, Ford remembers “debate around who plays No 10 for England” swirling since his father, Mike, coached the side between 2006 and 2011. He stressed that players “get used to the exterior noise”.

“Everyone’s got their opinion on who should play and the way England should play,” Ford said.

Steve Borthwick has bolstered his staff with the appointment of Felix Jones as defence coach, a change that has energised Ford: “As soon as you think you’ve nailed it or cracked it that’s when you get caught out, isn’t it?

“It’s been a consistent thing of mine to keep finding little areas or parts of my game [to improve]. It’s great to have someone like Felix coming in from a defensive point of view.

“He’s obviously coached a different system and coached different players. Learning off him and what he demands off others; that gives you a new lease of life, reinvigorates you and makes you want to get better defensively.”

An unchanged England line-up sees a second straight appearance for the unfamiliar centre partnership of Fraser Dingwall and Henry Slade. The continuity should benefit Ford, who reinforced his class at the World Cup last year while Farrell was suspended, slotting three drop-goals to oust Argentina after a red card for Tom Curry.

‘When you are not the man, you have got a decision’

Ford, however, was back out of the starting side for the knockout rounds and among the replacements as Farrell returned. Time, and disappointments like the 2015 World Cup, have taught him to stay “neutral” and seize opportunities when they present themselves

“When you are not the man, and you have a setback, in that moment you have got a decision,” he said. “Do you throw your toys out of the pram or do you actually say ‘stuff this’ and come back better from it?”

“It has happened a few times [to me],” Ford added. “I suppose maybe the one I didn’t deal with the best was when I was younger. I probably didn’t deal with that first game of the 2015 World Cup [well]. That was the one that I think that was [the low point] just because it was such a new experience for me.

“We had a World Cup in England, this massive thing, you play the first game of the World Cup on a Friday night [against Fiji] and you win with a bonus point and then things change the week after [Ford was dropped to the bench]. I think it was just me, being a bit younger and not having experienced it before.”

Ford expects Wales to have prioritised an assured start on Saturday given they slumped to a 27-0 deficit in round one against Scotland before rallying with 26 unanswered points. He also anticipates that Warren Gatland’s charges will hang in the contest no matter how England perform.

“The one thing it showed is that Wales don’t stop, they never give up,” he said. “No matter what the scoreline is, they’re always playing until the very end. That makes them dangerous.”