When a player first bursts onto the international stage, they perhaps set a standard for themselves that in the minds of both fans and critics, they may never be able to replicate. Like the debut album that grabs everyone’s attention before the resulting efforts lead to disappointment, so rugby players can stun all those watching when they explode onto the scene, before the critics eventually turn.
One of those players you could argue for England is Tom Croft. In 2009, now a settled member of the Leicester squad in the Aviva Premiership, Croft rode a remarkable wave that saw him play in part in Premiership success at Twickenham, a narrow defeat in the Heineken Cup final to Leinster, before embarking on the greatest of accomplishments for a Home Nations rugby player, the Lions tour to South Africa. Not only did Croft tour, but he started, and scored a try in that first test. Now, a senior figure in a disjointed and fresh England side, Croft is a different figure, with his place under threat.
“There’s certainly plenty that I need to work on, and I’m aware of that. I need to get my hands on the ball a bit more in the loose, but it’s all about fitting into the new attacking shape that we have. Given that as a relatively new squad we’ve only been together for four weeks now, it does take time for a team to gel and for players to adapt to playing with one another.
“I never come off the pitch thinking I’ve had a perfect game, because there’s always something that can be improved.”
Whatever criticism Croft might have received for his lack of input in the loose, there can be little doubt that thus far in the 2012 Six Nations, he has been part of a lineout that has been efficent, an area where Saturday’s opponents Wales have struggled. “It worked very well against Scotland, and against Italy we only lost a couple so it’s definitely improving. It needs a bit more tempo at the moment but that’s something we’re going to work on. I expect Wales will have worked hard to improve their’s during the week. We pride ourselves on our set-piece; the scrums went well against Italy, and it’s an area where we can really create a superior edge if we work hard on it.”
Looking back on the first two matches of the tournament, the dogged, difficult nature of both encounters in Edinburgh and Rome is a factor that Croft feels will stand England in good stead, even if the nature of the conditions in Rome bordered on hilarity. “When we came down from the hotel it was a blizzard, they even had to use a snowplough to get us out! For the new guys after two very hard wins away from home, it’ll definitely be a boost for them to experience that buzz from driving up to the stadium at Twickenham and seeing the fans, before obviously running out there which will be huge, so we hope that’ll also bring an improved performance in our game.”
With regards to the new players who make up such a large portion of this England side, the blindside has nothing but praise, as well as being pleased to see the return to fitness of some of his Leicester team-mates in Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi. “I’ve been really impressed with Brad Barritt and his work in the midfield, whilst Chris Robshaw has stepped into the captaincy role exceptionally well. Ben Morgan has made a massive impact off the bench and made the competition in the back row more intense. Plus it’s always good to see Toby and Manu back fit and playing. Everyone’s very aware of what those two bring to the party.”
Saturday’s will see many of those new players run out at Twickenham in a white shirt for the first time, where they will also face their sternest challenge yet in their international careers. Whilst Croft hopes that the build-up will motivate the players to give that little bit more, he is wise enough to know that once the whistle goes, England will be facing the Six Nations favourites, hungry for a rare Twickenham success. “Playing in front of your home crowd makes an impact but of course it only goes so far. Because five minutes after you’ve run out, you’re in a tough, tough game.” What England would give for the Croft of 2009 to emerge from the tunnel on Saturday.
by Ben Coles
Tom Croft is an ambassador for SSE. To check out Tom going head to head against Wales’ second row star Ryan Jones in a series of three video challenges, head to www.sserugby.com and see who wins!