Scots record-breaker Ross Ford eyes Rugby World Cup 2019

If you are just out of school and the head coach calls you into his office, it is either very, very good news, or very, very bad. For Ross Ford, when Tony Gilbert, the coach at the new Borders team, asked for a chat, it turned out to be life changing.

Ross Ford drives through the Australian tackles during Scotland's win over the Wallabies in Sydney last weekend. Picture: Fotosport/David Gibson
Ross Ford drives through the Australian tackles during Scotland's win over the Wallabies in Sydney last weekend. Picture: Fotosport/David Gibson

There is a direct line from that conversation to the announcement that Ford will break Chris Paterson’s Scotland caps record when he takes to the pitch against Fiji in Suva this weekend. Gilbert had a bombshell suggestion to make: how did Ford fancy shifting from the back to the front row? Maybe prop?

Ford may have been a pretty
solid specimen for a flanker, the position he had played all through youth rugby, but he knew his limitations. “I said ‘nae, chance’,” Ford recalls now. “He said right ‘okay, hooker it is’ – and that was it.

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“He had gone on past experience. He had worked with Anton Oliver [the All Blacks hooker] and said I had the same body shape and the same skills. Based on that, it would be good for me to move to the front row.”

These days it seems every hooker around has experience in the back row, but we are talking 2002, when that kind of change was more 
revolutionary. Yet, you have only to look at any Scotland side in the last decade to see that Gilbert was right, Ford settled into his new role and, once he got his first start after nine caps off the bench, he rarely looked back. He may be 110 caps young, but is nowhere near finished. There is a lot more to come, he insists. “I can go to the next World Cup,” claimed the 33-year-old. “I feel in the shape of my life 
just now.”

With a little more than 20 games to go before the next World Cup, getting there would probably put him at about the 130-cap mark. An impressive total for a player who had to wait two years after his first cap in 2004 for his second and did not get his first start for another year [2007] and started this year dropped to the bench again.

Strangely, that is exactly what helped revive his career. As an automatic selection, he was starting to look a bit stale, but now a crop of younger men are challenging him, that revived his appetite for the battle. He was dropped, Fraser Brown getting the nod, but Ford won his place back after the Twickenham debacle.

“With Fras [Brown], Rambo [Stuart McInally] and George [Turner] coming through, I have had to adapt,” Ford admitted. “It was a kick in the backside when I started the Six Nations on the bench, so I have to get up again. Reaching the record has given me another boost to get better again.

“I have enjoyed the summer tour. I enjoyed the Six Nations as well. We have been playing some good rugby.

“I don’t like starting on the bench but it does take the pressure off not having to be there all the time. I have to look after my body a bit better and that has helped this season, especially at Edinburgh, where I don’t have to play every game.

“I am able to sit and take a seat so hopefully that will continue and I will keep getting better and improve my skills for playing in the big games.”

He’s not a great one for nostalgia, though. With so many to recall, the games kind of merge into a mental blur, though he does have the physical reminders to help jog his memories, the debut cap presented after his debut against Australia, the one presented when he reached 50 against Romania in the 2011 World Cup, the third when he reached 100 last year, again against Australia.

“Laura [his wife] gets them framed and they go up on the wall – sometimes. It depends if there are any better pictures of the boys [his sons Jake and Owen] going about,” he joked. There is also a portrait by local artist Jim Fleming to commemorate the century to add to the rotation.

If he is happy that landmark achievements still take second place to family snaps, it’s no surprise he is resolutely not making a fuss about his record: “It’s something that just happened like the 100 – it just crept up. It is definitely a massive honour but it is strange when other boys speak to you about it. It’s been 13 years now, it is a very long time. When you hear the boys speaking about it you realise how long you have been about, but it has not been mentioned that much. They know what I am like. I am not that fussed about things.”

When you think back to that conversation with Gilbert, though, neither of them could have expected the experiment to finish where it has. Not just as a record breaker, but capable of setting a new mark that could stand for decades.