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)