Last Spring, Tom Croft broke his neck. He was millimetres away from being paralysed for the rest of his life, and spent eight weeks in a neck brace. It is fantastic and frankly miraculous news that he is now back with the England squad.
He was called up to train with them ahead of the Italy and Wales matches. Considering the severity of his injury and the relatively short amount of time that has passed, it is an astonishing turnaround in fortunes. His rehabilitation has been extensive, and Richard Cockerill, head coach at the Leicester Tigers, was careful not to rush him back to action. He has been used sparingly over the past couple of months since he made his return.
It is a little surprising, then, that he has been called into the international fold so soon. If he is there though, he must be ready; Cockerill and Stuart Lancaster would not allow it otherwise, and indeed the latter has been in close contact with the former about Croft's physical state. His form since January has been encouraging, culminating in an all-action performance against Sale Sharks last weekend. He was everywhere, winning ball at breakdowns, making hard yards around the fringes as well as galloping in the open spaces (as is his trademark) and showing some deft touches with ball in hand.
Anyone who remembers the 2009 Lions tour remembers Croft in his pomp - imperious on the hard, dry pitches of the Southern Hemisphere. Such a player was always going to come back into the international fold. However, until recently the plan had been to take him on the summer tour to Argentina, but so impressive has he been that plans have been brought forward and Croft is back in with a shout of selection in the final two Six Nations matches.
What does this mean for England, then? The back-row is consistently the most hotly-debated selection area. England have managed to build a well-balanced unit of late, and the possible introduction of Croft does threaten this. Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood are both effective at the breakdown without actually being 'specialists' in the area, while Wood does so much of the unseen work that often goes without praise. They play so well because they compliment each other superbly. Any change risks upsetting that balance.
Robshaw will not be dropped; he is captain and talisman of the Lancaster regime. If Wood is dropped, someone would have to pick up the slack caused by his absence - probably Robshaw, meaning other parts of his game would suffer. The only other option is to bring Croft in at blindside and put Wood at no.8, but this leaves the back-row looking very light, especially against the traditional might of the Italian pack (mauling by the Welsh aside).
Detractors of Croft say he spends too much time doing the fancy stuff and not enough grafting for an international blindside flanker. This is simply not true, especially since his return from injury. Proof of this came in the Sale game, when he single handedly turned over the ball at the breakdown. The next phase the Tigers scored their bonus point try.
Besides, Lancaster's style is not to pander to individuals and their desire to play a certain way. One suspects that if Croft is to play in this Six Nations, he will be told there are certain things he has to do - probably relating to physicality at the breakdown, a hallmark of England's epic win against the All Blacks in the autumn. If he wants to play, he will have to adhere to the team's blueprint.
Is he ready? Possibly not to start. Neither Robshaw nor Wood deserve to be dropped, given that they have been two of the standout performers of the Six Nations thus far. However, he could be a valuable impact player on the bench - his pace could be devastating against tired legs in the last 15-20 minutes. Whatever happens regarding selection, it is great to see him back in the mix again after a potentially career-threatening injury.
- Sports & Recreation
- Tom Croft
- Stuart Lancaster