Why Sale Sharks and George Ford are a perfect match

It has been a turbulent season for intra-Premiership transfers. This season has seen more mid-season club switches than ever before, with the player movements more closely resembling an NBA-style draft than a traditional English rugby transfer window.

There is much to be excited for for almost every Premiership fan base, Bristol will gain the mercurial AJ MacGinty, Tigers will be bolstered by World Cup-winner Handre Pollard, Wasps will get one of the best tightheads in world rugby in Vincent Koch, while Bath’s pickup of Niall Annett could prove to be particularly shrewd and underrated. However, in my opinion, the best mid-season signing has to be the man from Oldham finally finding his way back home to the North West of England. Ford has arguably been the best player in the Premiership this season, picking up two player of the month awards and leading Tigers to the top of the table. Putting them in a serious position to steal the whole crown at Twickenham on the 8th June, the most unlikely of prospects considering their position at the foot of the table just two years ago. No doubt the Tigers renaissance has been pioneered and epitomised by Ford.

But the big question, and the one I will answer in this article, is how the new Sale Sharks will look next season with Ford in the 10 shirt, and indeed a few other personnel alterations.

Playmaker Distribution:

To understand this, first we need to understand how the current Sale Sharks team play. A significant element of the current Sale team is the over-reliance of ball off 9. In the article I wrote about AJ MacGinty, almost a year ago:

I highlighted how, at the time, Sale played more off 9 than any other team in the league. This is because Faf De Klerk is central to the current gameplan, he is given free reign to control the tempo and pace of the game, taking almost all the pressure off AJ MacGinty at 10. Compare this to Leicester Tigers who play more off 10 than any other team in the league, for the simple reason that, when George Ford is your 10 you give him the ball and let him decide what to do with it, he is one of the best in the world at game management and controlling a game with the ball in his hands. This is why, although many would have been surprised at Faf De Klerk’s departure from Sale, I knew it was a foregone conclusion as soon as Ford was announced, because the two could never play together because both need to be the dominant halfback in their respective teams.

Look at this graphic from BT Sport’s Ross Hamilton to help visualise this (bottom right), in the recent European Quarter Final’s, Sale played 61% off 9 and just 21% off 10 while Leicester played 38% off 10 and just 57% off 9.

Therefore, expect Sale’s playmaker ratios to flip and for their attack to be ran almost entirely through the number 10 shirt.

You may be wondering what this means for what you actually see on the pitch. Well expect the ball to get to the wide channels far more and far less tight forwards play, attacking with one-out runners off the edge of the ruck. The centres and wingers will get far more touches of the ball.

For this reason, a player who is set to have a career season is Raffi Quirke. It is widely agreed that Raffi’s strength is running with the ball and being a threat to the fringes of rucks with his pace and vision. He is not necessarily elite at game management or kicking. With Ford demanding these responsibilities it will take all the pressure off Raffi and allow him to focus on his offensive running game. It sounds strange to say now, but Raffi is very reminiscent of a young Ben Youngs, who first asserted himself in newspaper headlines at the age of 17 as a wily ball runner with freakish speed and agility. Youngs didn’t his elite game management nous until his mid-20s when he already had a handful of England caps under his belt. It wouldn’t be outlandish to suggest that Raffi could have a similar career trajectory.

Ford and Raffi mould together perfectly in terms of complimenting each others strengths and weaknesses. Ford is not known for being an aggressive defender, while Raffi is one of the best defensive 9s in the league and punches 3 times his weight when rushing up on opposition ball carriers.

Possession:

Sale build their success on their defence, they have a number of seriously physical and aggressive loose forwards, as well as a physical inside centre, and they attempt to choke the opposition into making errors through line speed and collisions. Sale are happy to let you have the ball because they are confident in their defence. Sale, who currently sit in 7th, have conceded the 5th least tries in the league with just 60, 2 less than Gloucester in 5th and 13 less than Northampton in 4th. To help visualise this further, here is a helpful graph from Sam Larner showing the metric “try equivalents conceded”, I have linked a definition for this metric, however, in short, it is how many tries a team should concede based on defensive statistics such as tackles missed and linebreaks allowed.

As you can see by the graph, Sale, by this metric, have the best defence in the league, and arguably are underperforming by leaking as many tries as they have. Furthermore, Sale’s attack is distinctly below average, which is supported by the fact they are 9th in the league for tries scored with just 68.

League PositionTries Scored Tries Conceded
Sale Sharks (as of 20.05.22)7th9th5th

An important thing to note is that, although Ford loves the ball in his hands, he also loves to play without possession. Another graphic from BT Sport’s Ross Hamilton shows us that Leicester had the fewest carries and the most kicks in the whole Champions Cup this season. This is because Ford bases his gameplan on kicking teams to death, he is the master of tactical kicking and has meticulously picked apart many of the best teams in the Premiership with barrages of bombs and territorial grass-cutters.

This is confirmed further by this graph, also from BT’s Ross Hamilton, which shows that, in round 1 of the Champions Cup, Ford, just himself, actually kicked more than every other team in the tournament except Bordeaux.

So what does this all mean for Sale next season? Well the main reason Ford and Sale are a match made in heaven is that, as we have established, Ford loves to play without the ball and Sale love to play without the ball. Sale have arguably the best defence in the league so Ford can have free reign to let his kicking game flourish, with the knowledge that Sale back their defence. Add to this the fact that, when one or even two of the Curry twins are on the pitch, attacking teams rarely make it past 10 phases before the ball is stolen or disrupted.

Furthermore, because Ford loves the ball in his hands, but he doesn’t necessarily like to run the ball, he absolutely loves a big physical ball carrying 12 next to him. With Rohan Janse Van Rensburg on the way out this means Manu Tuilagi will be vital next season. This is a combination we, of course, have already seen for both Leicester Tigers and England and I am sure both parties are anxious to reignite. Tuilagi has struggled for fitness recently but if he does stay fit next season I wouldn’t be surprised if he has the best season of his career.

Not to mention that, with all due respect, Ford isn’t known for his big tackles or for stepping out the defensive line to put in a big collision. So a large, defensively intelligent 12, is vital to pair next to George. Alternatively, this season we have seen Leicester defend set pieces with Ford on the wing to protect him from big ball carriers. We could expect Sanderson to do the same with Tuilagi, Rob Du Preez or even Raffi defending in the “10” position.

Kicking Game:

Now we have established that Ford kicks a lot lets analyse his kicking game in detail. Leicester Tigers winger Harry Potter has gone from the Australian 2nd division to one of the best wingers in the Premiership and a big reason for this is because he is seriously elite on the kick chase. With serious speed and a 6’1 stature he is so good at getting underneath Ford’s bombs and either winning the ball in the air or making a dominant collision on the catcher.

Sale winger Arron Reed is slightly shorter at 5’10 but has demonstrated the same elite ability to win the ball in the air or smash a stationary catcher, making significant territorial gain. Expect Reed to become Ford’s best friend next season chasing kicks up and down the pitch and terrorising opposition fullbacks all over the country. Arron arguably already “broke through” this season but he could really cement himself in the upper echelons of Premiership wingers with Ford at the helm next season. The same can be said for Roebuck and O’Flaherty who are both also elite operators on the kick chase.

Who could forget Roebuck’s score vs Leicester or Reed’s score vs Northampton, both nominated for try of the season.

Finally, one of the areas Sale have struggled the most this season is goalkicking, frequently leaving points out on the park and missing chances to win, or draw, because of missed kicks at goal. Ford has been one of the best goalkickers in the league for many years, regularly averaging between 80-90% success rate and currently sitting 3rd on the Premiership top point scorers list with 176.

To conclude, despite my previous controversial claims about AJ MacGinty, who is still a fine player, you can assume that Sale’s game will improve infinitely with George Ford next season, especially in attack. Rugby is a game increasingly dominated by the biggest, strongest and fastest players in the world with physical ability often valued over general rugby knowledge and know-how. However, there is no doubt still a place in todays game for a mini-marshall who can win games by simply out-thinking his opposite, George Ford is that man.

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