Beckham's example shines bright for Ford in Sapporo

The last time England were playing in a World Cup in Sapporo was 17 years ago and it took a penalty to earn them a vital group-stage victory, writes Charlie Talbot-Smith in Japan.

That day, David Beckham held his nerve to down Argentina and lift his side towards the knockout rounds.

Fast forward to 2019 and the oval ball has arrived in the iconic Sapporo Dome.

But George Ford will be hoping there is much more than just a penalty between his Red Rose side and Tonga come full-time.

The ever-diligent fly-half has clearly been doing his homework however, and will be looking to take some inspiration from Beckham come their Pool C opener.

“I searched that [football match] earlier in the week,” said Ford. “Someone said England football played here in 2002 – I was nine I think. I don’t remember watching it, but looking back I remember it now. I think they were wearing red that day and Beckham scored the penalty – so that’s pretty cool knowing they played there.

“What a brilliant place to go and play in. The pitch is unbelievable. And [the stands are] very steep, so I’d expect the atmosphere to be pretty special. There’s not much wind so there’s no excuses for us kickers. For a game where both teams would want to attack and score some tries – we want to defend well, of course we do – but it’s going to be perfect conditions for that.”

Head coach Eddie Jones has left no stone unturned in preparation, including picking the brain of Danny Mills who was right back for England that day in 2002.

“We spoke to them and spoke about their experience at the ground,” said Jones. “That all went into our preparation and planning for this game.”

England are all guns blazing for their Pool C opener against the Pacific Islanders, Jones naming a near-full strength side that includes Ford – reinstated at No.10 with skipper Owen Farrell outside him.

It has been a rough ride for Ford over the last World Cup cycle – the main man at No.10 for much of the dominant first two years with Jones at the helm.

But in 2018 he got the boot, Farrell switching to fly-half – much like he did midway through England’s disastrous 2015 World Cup on home soil – and Ford left to cool his jets on the bench.

It would have been easy to sulk, but some harsh words from his father Mike Ford – former Bath head coach – set him right.

Ford senior told him in no uncertain terms: ‘The only thing you can do is be ready for whenever you’re needed again’.

His son now admits: “At the time, I thought ‘Jesus, that’s a little bit… I was expecting a bit more…’” Ford jnr trails off. “But I look back on that now and think it was the best thing he could have done.”

Four years ago, England’s party was spoiled before it ever really began.

After downing Fiji in their opener, they were sent packing by Australia and Wales and the dream was dead.

But with a Grand Slam won since then, and an impressive 2019 that has included two massive wins over Ireland, Ford is confident those scars have healed.

And starting against a Tonga side who shipped 92 points to the All Blacks in their final warm-up game, now is the time to write a new chapter.

“We keep saying we don’t want to go through again what we did in 2015 so we felt it important first to front a few things up and then move on.

“You look back four years and you think the game has changed massively and you have changed massively as a player.

“You almost think, how the hell was I in that position? Only now you realise, 'Bloody hell, I knew nothing. I’d experienced nothing'.”

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