WHO would have ever imagined this young boy pictured playing rugby in the back garden of his home in Saddleworth could this weekend become a legend in the sport?
George Ford, who was raised in Grasscroft and is a former pupil at Knowsley Primary, will be a key member of the England team bidding for glory in the final of the Rugby World Cup when they tackle South Africa in Yokohama, Japan, on Saturday, November 2.
The 26-year-old was named man of the match in the semi-final when England beat the all-conquering All Blacks as the New Zealand side that had been aiming for three World Cup wins in a row. He kicked four penalties and scored 12 points in the 19-7 victory.
Father Mike, who still has a family base in Dobcross, admitted there is unfinished family business as he was England’s defence coach when they were beaten 15-6 by South Africa in the 2007 final of the Rugby World Cup.
“As a family, we are really excited and there will be a lot of emotion. There is also the question of revenge as I coached England when we lost to South Africa in the final,” he explained.
Mike has been given special leave of absence by Leicester Tigers, where he is forwards’ coach, so he can be at the final. His wife Sally Ann travelled out for the quarter final win against Australia.
He said: “Leicester have kindly let me have time off which I realised might not have been possible.
“I have stood on muddy fields watching George play amateur games and I needed to be there to see the biggest match of his career.”
As for the semi-final victory against the All Blacks, he explained “I don’t like seeing George’s games in a group so watched it on my own at home in Leicester. You go through a lot of emotions as a parent as Sally Ann found watching the game live and I can handle it best watching the game alone.
“I saw some television footage of Sally Ann with George after the game and could tell she had been crying.”
Mike added he switched off his mobile telephone for the semi-final, but when the game was over there were more than 100 text messages awaiting him.
“Some were from people who had known George since he was an amateur and wanted to touch base. Everyone was proud what he had achieved,” he said.
It has been a memorable World Cup for George who has started five of England’s six games, the exception was the quarter-final victory against Australia.
Mike praised his son for the way he overcame the disappointment of not playing against the Aussies.
George has often lost out to Owen Farrell for the No 10 stand-off position.
But for three of the World Cup warm-up games George, who has won 64 England caps, was selected at No 10 and he played all four pool games there with Farrell switching outside to centre.
Mike said: “It was not easy for George not being selected to start the quarter-final. The way he handled the bitter disappointment was what made me most proud.
“I spoke to George after the Australia game when he did not know whether he would start against the All Blacks. His mentality was he had to be ready if he were a replacement if he were needed in the first, 10th or 80th minute.
“We knew we had to trust Eddie’s (Jones, head coach) plans and it was an outstanding weekend to beat the All Blacks, the best team in the world when George was outstanding at No 10.
“It’s a big week for George and he knows its magnitude. He will be doing what he has done all his life and it is important he has fun and enjoys the occasion.
“I am sure the final will be close with fine margins and both sides having opportunities. We have to make sure we give ourselves an opportunity to win the World Cup but I am sure it will be more complicated than that.”
Mike added the 2019 final is far removed compared to 2007 when he was involved as an England coach.
He said: “There is a different feel as we were not favourites in 2007 when we fought and scrapped out way to the final.
“There is a different feel this time. When Eddie became head coach four years ago at his first meeting the date November 2, 2019 was mentioned as the goal.
“Eddie has approached things in a different way and didn’t celebrate after beating the All Blacks as the job had not been completed.
“Contrast that to South Africa when they beat Wales in the other semi-final and were jumping up and down after winning.
“We are completely focused and whatever happens this weekend our preparation cannot be questioned and no group deserves to win it more than England.”