Have Leicester Tigers been sold a lemon? That’s the question being asked by many at the moment following a highly disappointing week for new signing George Ford.
Ford returns to Welford Road this summer after three seasons away from the club at Bath. In that time the 24 year-old has gone from promising young talent to England’s first choice fly half - however with one big caveat. He does not take the kicks for the national team, with the more consistent Owen Farrell being given the responsibility.
The reason for that became evident on Sunday afternoon when he missed the critical kick of the match in his side’s exit away at Stade Francais in the semi-final of the European Challenge Cup. Bath fought back from being 18-6 down to take the lead 25-18 - with Ford setting up the West Country side’s third try with a short pass to put Elliott Stooke over.
Before that Ford’s agile footwork had put Ben Tapuai through but the Australian international centre dropped the ball as he reached out to score. But Ford’s poor place kicking eventually cost his side the match as he was outplayed in that area by his opposite number Jules Plisson who scored 18 points, scoring a try, two penalties, two conversions and a drop goal which gave his side a 28-25 lead in the 80th minute.
However Bath had one more chance, in the 82nd minute they won a penalty 24 metres out from the posts, near the touchline to level the score and send the match into extra time. But Ford pushed his effort across the face of the posts to spark wild celebrations from the Parisian crowd. Ford had previously missed a conversion and easy drop goal attempt.
Ford’s display on Sunday was proof of why he didn’t get a place in Warren Gatland’s 41-man British and Irish Lions squad to take on the best of New Zealand this summer. Instead the Kiwi-born coach opted for Ireland and Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton and Ospreys and Wales’ Dan Biggar, with Saracen’s Farrell and Glasgow and Scotland’s Stuart Hogg also providing cover at 10.
Ford has 35 England caps and has been the attacking inspiration of Eddie Jones’ side as they equalled the record for consecutive wins in top flight international rugby with 18, which included two Six Nations titles and a 3-0 series whitewash in Australia.
All his attacking flair was certainly on display for Bath on Sunday but so were his frailties, missing tackles and cracking mentally. Despite getting the hard shoulder from Gatland, Ford will be playing international rugby this June when he travels to Argentina for a two-Test tour with England, alongside new team mate Ellis Genge.
Leicester don’t make salaries public information but Tigers are reported to have spent around £450,000 a season on Ford, which combined with the rumoured £500,000 they are paying the injured Manu Tuilagi, amounts to a huge slice of their player budget and potentially a big waste of money. Because what are Leicester getting for nearly £1,000,000? Even if both players are fit all season, which seems highly unlikely in Tuilagi’s case as the power-house centre has been plagued by injuries during his senior career as his body struggles to handle the pressure he puts it under, then they will still miss around a third of the season playing with England. That’s a lot of money to be paying players who are missing for huge chunks of the season.
The again Ford’s first spell at Leicester was largely a successful one. After starting his career in rugby league he joined the club as a 15-year-old and in November 2009 became the youngest player to make his professional debut in England at just 16 years and 237 days old in an LV= Cup game against Leeds.
Ford was also making waves internationally at age-group level, playing for England Under-18s at just 15 years-old. In 2009 he was nominated for BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year award.
2011 was a big year for the fly-half, winning a U20s Six Nations Grand Slam and reaching the Junior World Championship final - becoming the first Englishman to be named IRB World Junior Player of the Year in December 2011.
In 2012, just two days after his 19th birthday Ford won the Anglo-Welsh Cup with Leicester, beating derby rivals Northampton in the final. Ford played in two Aviva Premiership finals for Leicester with his last performance coming for the club at Twickenham, scoring 12 points from the bench as Tigers beat Northampton Saints 37-17.
That was Leicester’s last visit to the Grand Final and Ford’s 40th and final first team game for the club as well as his final points, having amassed 253 for the club. All at Leicester well be hoping there will be a lot more to come as there are not a lot of other kicking options at the club next season with Owen Williams joining Gloucester, and Freddie Burns filling the void left at Bath.
Australian international Matt Toomua will likely move across from centre to fly-half when fit, for when Ford is away with England, with Sam Harrison potentially providing back-up alongside academy stand-off Oil Bryant.
In reality only history will tell whether Tigers have invested wisely in a player who will undoubtedly shape their fortunes for years to come.
If Tigers don’t want to be caught by Ford’s current side Bath they have another must win game at home to Sale on Saturday afternoon.