Can Tom Croft provide England’s X Factor?

tom croft
Prior to Tom Croft’s recent return from a serious neck injury, it was beginning to look like Stuart Lancaster had Tom Wood, Chris Robshaw and Ben Morgan pencilled in as his preferred starting back row, but Croft’s form for Leicester since his return has raised questions over whether or not he can be accommodated in this unit.

Croft certainly has his critics, the majority of which admonish his lack of work at the breakdown, but there is no denying that Croft truly has world class potential, and many of the world’s best loose forwards would sell their souls for his athleticism and physical gifts. This potential is one reason there have been calls for him to return to the England XV, where Wood, Robshaw and Morgan, albeit all good international players, are not world class.

It would take a brave man to exclude Robshaw from the team, with the openside having distinguished himself as a fine captain, and Wood’s workhorse mentality in both defence and at the breakdown, is something which is desperately needed by any international team. That leaves Morgan, who, besides Manu Tuilagi, is arguably England’s best ball carrier. Could Morgan make way for Croft?

There is little chance of Croft getting time at eight for Leicester with both Thomas Waldrom and Jordan Crane at the club, but Lancaster has shown that he is not averse to playing people out of position, as he showed with Wood at eight following Morgan’s injury in the Six Nations. It is also important not to forget how useful Croft is at the lineout, and coupled with club teammate Geoff Parling, England could potentially have one of the best lineouts in the game.

This might be harsh on Morgan, who hasn’t done too many things wrong in an England shirt, but there are few people who would disagree with the statement that, individually, there are no better English back row forwards than Croft, Wood and Robshaw, and the question is can Lancaster find a way of gelling them into an effective unit?

Odds are that Lancaster will stick with his current back row trio, but it is a great shame to see a player of Croft’s calibre restricted to a bench role, albeit a highly dynamic one. Sir Ian McGeechan showed faith with Croft in 2009 and was rewarded with some heroic displays, and at that point, Croft was beating out competition from four nations, not just one.

Whilst suggesting playing Croft at eight would be tantamount to sectioning for many, there is also the possibility of moving Wood to eight (a fairly unpopular decision during the Six Nations) and slotting Croft in at six. This would create a similar situation to the one Croft enjoys at Leicester, where he plays in his preferred role of blindside flanker, but is not exposed due to being partnered by a Number Eight willing to put in the time at the breakdown (both Crane and Waldrom do a similar job at Leicester).

With a plethora of young talent coming through in the Premiership, such as Luke Wallace, Billy Vunipola and Matt Kvesic, fitting Croft into England’s current system is not necessarily as important as it would have been a year or two ago, but to see a player like Croft never fulfil the international potential he promises, would be a great shame.

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

31 thoughts on “Can Tom Croft provide England’s X Factor?

  1. He’s absolute class. To say he hasn’t fulfilled his international potential is a little silly? A try scoring British and Irish Lion and scorer for England many a time…Best line out jumper in world rugby.

    1. I don’t think it is silly to say he hasn’t filled his potential. He has had a good career so far but I feel there is a hell of a lot more to come from him – and therefore his potential has not yet been reached.

  2. Tom Croft is one of the only genuine world class English players in my opinion. Him with Tuilagi, B. Youngs, Cole and Ashton are the only players that I would have anywhere near the term “world class”.

    The only thing that counts against him is finding the balance in the back row. For me, the best way to play Croft and have a balanced back row, is with: 6. Croft, 8. Morgan, 7. Wood.

    I understand that dropping Robshaw would be extremely harsh, and I am fan of his. BUT, I believe this back row is the best one that can take England forward. In terms of the captaincy, lets not forget that if Wood has not injured his foot before the 2012 6N, he would be England captain right now.

    1. Agree. Tough call and very harsh on Robshaw but I agree this would have the best balance.

      One thing that frustrates me about Robshaw, as much of a work horse and great engine he’s got… he’s very slow.

      1. While I don’t think Robshaw is one of the best 3 backrowers in the BIs one of the things that I do admire about him is that he uses his brain to overcome his weaknesses. Yes, he is slower than average but compensates for this extremely well with his positional play (he always seems to be in the right place) and his immediate look for an offload when he’s carrying.

        1. Agreed Brightly; and Robshaw is an excellent option to have. He can cover all three positions so could be a good bench option. I am not recommending that we discard him from the England set up – but I would like to see a back row of Wood, Croft and Morgan play.

  3. I agree, England definitely missed Croft in the 6 Nations. Harsh as it is I’d drop Robshaw, he works his ar** off every game but he’s not an out and out 7.
    I’d put Croft at 6, Wood 7 (he’s a bigger presence at the breakdown) and Morgan at 8. Morgan’s dynamic ball carrying was missed after he was injured, there aren’t many 8’s who can make the in-roads he does for England.

  4. No. Yes, he’s a fantastic player, but the entire purpose of the back row is to have a balance. That was the problem England had when Morgan got injured towards the end of the 6N – they no longer had that balance. Haskell, Croft and Lawes are all very good players but England struggled with them playing because of the lack of balance in the back row.

    For example, Wood and Robshaw work really well in tandem, but that was no longer possible when Robshaw had to be back fielding the kicks instead of Morgan. Unless there are like-for-like swaps (Like Billy V for Morgan?) or a complete changeover to find a new balance in the back row (Robshaw, Kvesic, Croft?) then I can’t see a space for Croft.

    Just my opinion – the balance in the back row is primary. I don’t think Croft can replace any of the current three and still keep that back row balance.

    1. Exactly. Well put.

      And when Croft played against Wales, England were even more stuffed as with Robshaw fielding kicks and trying to carry the ball, there was only Wood to support at the breakdown, whilst Croft hung around in mid-field and on the wing

      1. I think that was not because of Croft, it was because we had no ball carrying number 8.

        I agree that back row balance is the key; but not that this excludes Croft.

        1. Agree, Jacob, that Croft isn’t excluded – but like I said, I don’t see Croft being a like-for-like swap for any of the existing three. An entire new back row balance will have to be found, and:
          a) The existing back 3 is working quite well.
          b) It’s taking a risk to completely shift the back row.
          c) Even the most pro-Croft fans would be pushed say that Croft warrants the back row remodelling just to maximise his talents.

          Croft certainly is the best Impact sub England have on the back row. But a starter? I’d rather not.

          1. I see your point. But it will not take a lot for Croft to find himself in an England starting shirt. For example, Robshaw, and then potentially Wood and Morgan could well be on the Lions tour.

            That probably means that Croft will start all the games in Argentina. He would well play well enough to justify his selection going forward, and prove that he can play in a balanced back row. I am not seeing he will, but he could.

            I am a big Croft fan admittedly, but I would like to see him in and around the squad, maybe not a starter for now, but I wouldn’t discount him.

  5. After this Six Nations, we need to learn that we need a 6, 7, and an 8 in the back row. Playing 3 6’s does not work. A lot of England’s scrappy ball from the scrum has been the result of poor work from the Number Eight, Tom Wood. No offence to Tom Wood, but he is not a number eight, and neither is Tom Croft. Morgan and Vunipolo are the best in that position right now for England.

    Although saying Croft is wasted on the bench, the fact of the matter is that he is the ideal impact sub, and his versatility adds to that. From a team perspective, that adds more than playing him out of position for the sake of having him in the line up.

  6. Personally i think he should now be a bench warmer.

    He is a good player no doubt, but he doesn’t offer the best breakdown option that you get with the likes of Robshaw and Wood.

    My England back row would be 6. Robshaw 7. Wood 8. Morgan/Vunipola

    Crofts biggest asset is his ability in the lineout and out in the loose, and this is becoming more and more crucial later in the game.

  7. No – I think he’s a good player but not a fantastic one. I wouldn’t rate him above the top 6s/7s from Ire/Fra/Sco so don’t see him as essential for helping England move up a level.

    1. Agreed Brighty

      I would question whether he can be called world-class as well. Certainly he’s good in the line-out and his pace is up there with fastest back rows, but that’s the extent of it

  8. Surely the concept of a “bench-warmer” is a little out-moded in todays International game. Particularly when it comes to the pack – and possibly Scrum-half as well.

    Surely the idea is to get 13 forwards for a game and manage the game plan accordingly through the use of all 13. I guess that exceptions are made in cases such as Cole/Wilson where one is markedly superior, but in most cases – LH/Hooker/2nd Row and Back Row, there is little to choose between most protagonists and i would argue that the question is not about whether any particular player should be one of the 3 back-rowers, but one of the 4 back-rowers.

    In Englands case (and possibly even Wales) there is even a case of choosing 7 “back-five” players for each game.

    (note – I am not suggesting that every 2nd Row / Back Row could play in any position from 4 to 8, but I am suggesting that there are players who possess an adaptability – Croft, Launchbury, Lawes, Ryan Jones, Coombs – even Nathan Hines)

  9. So someone out of Croft, Wood, Robshaw, Morgan, Haskell, Waldrom etc would have to sub? BIG DEAL. Modern international rugby is a squad game now anyway.

  10. I think he’s a decent option for the bench (prefer him to Haskell, but wouldn’t want to include him at the expense of Vunipola) to inject some real pace, but can’t see a starting back row balance that works with him in it.

    Personally I think we need to be looking at the NZ and Scotland performances as the blueprint we should be adopting going forwards. We were brilliant at the breakdown in both due to the collective work of Wood and Robshaw, with the rest of the team making very good decisions as to when to pile in and clear out. The engines on Wood and Robshaw also allow us to select Morgan, who isn’t really a grafter.

    Without Morgan (or a Vunipola in the future) we struggle get over the gain line, don’t get fast ball as the opposition don’t have to run back to join a ruck and can’t put any tempo on the game. So I think it’s far more important to accommodate a top class 8 than it is to find a space for Croft.

    Given a selection of a Morgan or Vunipola at 8 I think our best balance is with our 2 6.5s and their incredible work rate. Picking Croft just leaves too much for a 7 to do on their own and I don’t see us having any dominance at the breakdown.

    I don’t like the idea of him playing second row. We are already a very small tight 5 by modern international standards, we need to be adding size and power to the tight 5 not reducing it, so I don’t think Croft is a viable option there.

  11. I’m fully behind the assertion that Croft is a very good, but not a great, player – and the fact of the matter is that he has missed his chance through injury to cement his place both in Lancasters’ thoughts and in the England back row for years to come.

    In many ways he is a luxury selection, a roaming, rangy back row who provides a lineout option. Dominant teams (like leicester) can afford luxury players. Teams finding their way in international terms cannot. We need two back row workhorses (Robshaw, Wood, Armitage) and a carrier/enforcer (Morgan/Vunipola/Waldrom), and whilst i’m not accusing him of being lazy, ‘workhorse’an adjective you’d condider attaching to Croft’s style of play.

    In terms of him being a lineout threat, selecting him for this reason again falls in to the luxury category – Parling, Launchbury and Lawes are genuine lineout options as well as Wood and Robshaw. Englands lineout woes come from who is lobbing the thing in, not who is getting thrown up to catch it!

    This all seems very anti Croft, and I am not, he’s a great player to watch. I just do not see how he fits into the England starting XV moving forward!

  12. Tom Croft – 6ft5, 110kgs
    Joe Launchbury – 6ft6, 115kgs
    Geoff Parling – 6ft6, 114kgs
    Courtney Lawes – 6ft7, 118kgs

    Is he really too small to be a second row? what’s 4kgs really? and since when do we have a small tight 5?!

    I think people have hit the nail on the head when they say Robshaw, Wood and Morgan as the back row. It’s up to Croft, Haskell, Armitage, Vunipola etc to either massively up their games to get the nod OR wait for their chance (due to injury or lions selection of others) and really shine and make themselves undropable. Perhaps he could bulk up even more and play 8 and provide competition to Morgan, but the way he plays and the way the game is at the moment – it’s all about the breakdown and that’s not his strong point. He’s too tall! (Robshaw is only 6ft2 for example – those 3 inches make a big difference when getting low in a ruck!)

    1. By current international standards we have been picking a very small tight 5, none are what you would call big for their position. The front row especially, averaging only 110kg a man, is heavily outweighed by many teams. Whilst Croft isn’t considerably smaller he’s not going to strengthen the scrum and we do need to strengthen the scrum as we were seriously overpowered against the Welsh and mullered by the French as well.

      Jenkins 121kg
      Hibbard 110kg
      Jones 120kg
      Evans 116Kg
      AWJ 122Kg

      Marler 110Kg
      Youngs 102Kg
      Cole 118Kg
      Launchbury 115kgs
      Parling 114kgs

    2. just checked the RFU, tigers website and wikipedia… all 3 agree on croft being 105kgs… so was wondering where you found the extra 10kgs?

      also with regards to Lawes, i have found weights ranging from 111kg to 118kg, so a bit difficult to work out which he will be…

      with regards to you mentioning Armitage. it has nothing to do with upping his game or waiting for an injury, because he doesnt play in england. therefore he wont be picked.

      also Tom Wood is meant to be the “rucking king” in the england team, as most have agreed. he is 6ft5…

  13. Marler needs to get better at scrumamging, not heavier. Shocked that Evans is lighter than AWJ – I thought he was only in there because he’s a big lump!
    I think if Corbs had been playing then the scrums would have been much more even and then you’ve got to look at who offers more in the loose and i would say it was fairly even – Cole and Jenkins both good at the breakdown, parling and AWJ both good in the lineout, Hibbard and Youngs both good ball carriers – then Launchbury better than Evans so REALLY in theory – we’d have the upper hand ;-) (as long as Steve Walsh isn’t involved!)
    I just meant about Croft, IF he were to move position, would be better suited to 2nd row than 8 but really he should stay where he is and just wait for his chance and stop standing on the wing! (or falling over unopposed as against Northampton haha!)

    1. If you don’t think Ashton is world class then feel free to refer to his try scoring record at any level, some of the tries he scored for England and his performances more recently for Saracens. Feel free to watch more than just his performances in the Six Nations, which were certainly very poor.

  14. Simo – “He has trained specifically to strengthen it and, without sacrificing any of his speed and athleticism, has added nearly a stone of ballast to his pre-op 16st 3lb frame.”
    That extract is from the Telegraph, but Cockerill said the same thing that he’s added about a stone and it was he who mentioned 110kg. So feel free to go on and update Wikipedia!

    1. Fair play, it was a genuine question as to where you found it.

      In the past I read an article claiming that launchbury was 16st something, so I am pretty dubious when weights are thrown around without, until I know the source.

      The point I would make though is that croft would probably still be too small to play lock. At the moment most of English locks in the national setup are at the lighter end of the scale. Take someone like Ollie Kohn of Quins. He is 21st something. Eben Ezthebeth of SA is 6ft 8 (ish) and roughly 20 stone. Richie Gray is about 6’10 and 20 stone too. So when you look at the English locks already being the lower end of the scale, it seems that croft would come in light. This problem is made worse by the fact that our front row is lacking monsters. Vunipola would be a good option to bolster the scrum, but 1 prop isn’t going to make the difference.

      Also I am not suggesting a reshuffle of the pack, but I do think that their training should look to add about 5kgs to each man. After all, as you rightly pointed out, croft was able to add them with relative ease.

  15. It feels slightly wrong that we appear to have “light” English forwards. Whatever else England may have traditionally lacked, weight in the forwards has never been an issue!

Comments are closed.