The morning after England’s stunning victory over Argentina in Marseille last Saturday, George Ford, as he does after each of his games, talked through his performance with his father, Mike.
It was far removed from what might be a typical father and son catch-up. As Ford senior’s coaching career includes spells as defence coach with Ireland, England and the Lions, as well as head coach Saracens, Bath and Toulon, the phone call quickly centred on dissecting every one of Ford’s on-field decisions, usually around 100 per game, and, in particular, each of his three first-half dropped goals.
The England fly-half’s analysis provided a compelling insight into both his mental strength, tactical awareness and clarity of thought despite the traumatic adversity triggered by Tom Curry’s sending off after just three minutes.
And surprisingly, it was Ford’s third drop-goal from close range, not the two perfectly-struck long-range efforts, that pleased him the most.
“When I watch the game, I look at every decision he makes and consider what I would have done as a coach,” said Ford senior. “Invariably he makes around 100 decisions per game and we will talk about the two we would have done differently.
“Then he will give me his point of view. Seven, eight or nine times out of 10, I will go: ‘You were right, George’ because he is on the pitch feeling it, which is an emotion that is undervalued. He is not in the stand drinking coffee with his heart rate at 80 beats per minute.
“Having reviewed Saturday’s game, I would have agreed with all of his decisions for that game.
“We talked about the third drop-goal and he said it was the best one because Argentina didn’t expect it as England were only 15 metres from their try line. Because of that he wasn’t under pressure and it was so important because it put the team seven point clear and the mental side of them.
“Sitting in my lounge at home, was I thinking: ‘Go for the third drop-goal?’ No way. But when you talk to him about things like, you go ‘Bloody hell, yeah,’ it’s an unbelievable thought process in the moment to think clearly and make the right decision.
“He said it was all about putting scoreboard pressure on them, the ball was greasy, they were making errors and England’s defence was good. You way it all up in a fraction of a second and then decide to go for another three points and get two scores in front. That’s a snapshot of all the thought processes that are going through his mind in a few seconds.
“He has looked around him and thought: ‘We can be here and go through 18 phases and try to get a penalty but that would take a lot of energy out of the players but we have only got 14 men, and we could lose the ball in the greasy conditions. Argentina were fired up on the try-line.’ So he made the decision to kick it and get out of there.”
The 30 year-old’s 27-point haul not only inspired England’s escape to victory, but also appeared to be the defining moment of his international career, the night he finally stepped out of Owen Farrell’s shadow.
Such brilliant game management and clarity of thought under pressure suggests Ford, who made his professional debut at the age of just 16, has made the No 10 shirt his own now at what is his third World Cup.
“Since I can remember, we have been working on George’s mindset,” added Ford senior. “We put a real focus on it when we were at Bath and got Don Macpherson in to work on the mental side. He has kept in touch and listens to his podcasts, which talks about George being the best version of himself and what that looks like in order to seep into his subconscious.
“We as a family, with Joe coaching at Doncaster as well, we are constantly talking about how to get better, tactics or training. But the main focus and best chats we have is about the mental side of things, about how George perceives mental toughness, how he perceives thinking clearly.
“There are two things we have identified for George, the first is the TCUP concept that Clive Woodward brought in - thinking correctly under pressure.
“We have defined that as the moment George has the ball and is going to the line and thinking, ‘I am going to kick, pass or run?’ and you make the right decision. Or you are making a tackle, you are bending your back and driving your legs.
“The second TCUP is what we call ‘thinking clearly under pressure’. This is when you are not in the moment. Someone else has the ball, or there is a stoppage in play, or a decision to kick for a line-out. That is the time when the ability is to figure out what is going on in the game and to adapt and tweak what you are doing on the field.
“England would have trained with 14 before, but there is no way they would have done so for 77 minutes in that humidity and a greasy ball and had a couple of chances and not taken them.
“Dropped goals would have come into his mind straight away that Curry was sent off,” Ford senior added. “As a defence coach they are killers. You have not conceded a line break, you have defended really well, your system is intact and your discipline is good – and yet you still concede three points. It is a nightmare for a defence coach, because what can you do about it?
“And George has come up with that [the drop-goal strategy]. He has realised that three points is worth six points in those conditions. The third one just before half-time was huge. That put England seven points in front and with parity at the set piece, if not on top, then the pressure of the scoreboard changes people. Argentina were the favourites, but they were suddenly thinking ‘we have got 15 men but we are not winning.’
“Everyone talks about grabbing hold of a game and ownership, but what does that look like on a training field, how do you create those adaptations and different decisions and off the field what can individuals do to mentally skill you up for those situations? For George, that is massive.”