Joe Ford probably copped so many bench splinters at Northampton Saints last season that he was in danger of being nicknamed “The Judge.”
But the young Leeds Carnegie fly-half is adamant he has taken plenty from his brief stint at Franklin’s Gardens following his return to West Yorkshire – which came just a year on from his transfer to Saints.
The talented pivot made just five appearances in a frustrating campaign with the Heineken Cup finalists, yet he says his time in the East Midlands wasn’t wholly a tale of frustration, having garnered much from working on a daily basis with two of the most dynamic play-makers in the Premiership in union convert Stephen Myler and Shane Geraghty.
Now Ford, 21, has returned to familiar territory under the wing of an unabashed fan of his at Leeds in head coach Diccon Edwards, who brought him through the ranks at Headingley while he was still the academy manager.
And he is eager to display some of the skills he learned at the top-flight giants.
Ford, expected to be handed the fly-half berth for his ‘second’ Carnegie debut in the club’s Championship opener at home to London Welsh on Sunday, said: “I didn’t play a lot of rugby, but feel a better player from what I’ve learnt and the people I was around and how they operate and what it takes to be a top player. While physically, I’ve put a bit of weight on as well.
“Obviously, Myler and Geraghty are both quality tens and just watching them play was good, along with playing with them every day and kicking with them. Working with Grase (Paul Grayson – assistant head coach) as well, who played with England, was also great for me.”
He added: “But I realised at Northampton that if I wanted to get where I wanted to, I’ve got to play (games). I knew I wasn’t going to get that opportunity at Northampton, especially when they signed (Ryan) Lamb. So I then found out Leeds were interested and it just went on from there really and I couldn’t get back soon enough.
“To be fair, the Northampton coaches were good with me and said I would get a chance. But as it went further and further into the season, you realise it’s not going to happen, which is fair enough and that’s when I spoke to my agent and he said Leeds were really interested and I’m lucky they were, to be honest.”
On whether he regrets leaving Leeds with the benefit of hindsight, he added: “I reckon I would have taken the same decision and it was still a great experience and I worked with some of the greatest players in the world such as (Chris) Ashton and Dylan (Hartley) and people like that and I learnt a lot.”
Carnegie’s heart-breaking Premiership denouement at Franklin’s Gardens in early May proved a bitter-sweet day for Ford, who sat watching in the stands as the hosts dramatically rallied from a 24-3 deficit to secure a play-off place in a 31-24 victory and leave the shattering visitors staring relegation in the face in the cruellest of fashions on points difference.
Mindful of Leeds’ interest in him, the day could potentially have had implications for Ford following their likely demotion, but the Oldham-born star says that he would have always rejoined Carnegie, regardless of relegation.
He said: “They just needed one more try against Northampton, didn’t they? They were unlucky, but even though they went down, I knew I wanted to play for them.
“There were other clubs after me, but as soon as I found out Leeds were interested, I thought it was a good club where I would be happy and didn’t really look anywhere else.
“I nearly ended up on the bench on the final day, to be honest, because Geraghty was injured. It was tough to watch, especially when Leeds were up so much and they were so unlucky. One more try at the end would have been a perfect result, but it never happened.”
The start to the new season promises to be a big one for Ford and his kid brother George, 18, busy making waves at Leicester Tigers and with first-team opportunities set to fall in their lap consistently in the first part of the autumn, they are both keen to make a statement with any competition for bragging rights in the Ford household simply not in the equation.
Ford added: “When we train together, it’s obviously competitive. But I want him to do as well as me and play for England and want the best for each.
“I’m hoping he’ll get a chance with Leicester with (Toby) Flood away (with England), while (Jeremy) Staunton has got an injury as well.”