It appeared innocuous. The worst ones always seem to. When Nick Easter trundled through Tom Croft and over the line at the Twickenham Stoop last April, most onlookers were consumed with the state of play. Opening up a 23-10 lead over Leicester Tigers, Harlequins were dismantling their nearest rivals and sounding a significant message across the division they eventually conquered.
That Croft was stretchered off following his attempt to stop Easter was largely forgotten as Tigers tore back to take a thrilling 43-33 victory. Even in the immediate aftermath, there was little clarity over the rangy blindside’s injury. Certainly, when diagnosis did come – a triple break to the C6 vertebra with a burst disk in between for good measure – its severity was shocking.
“It was just a poor attempt at a tackle,” Croft recalls wryly. “I came off the back of the scrum and went too far. When I tried to cut back and make a tackle, Nick just ran over me.
“He is a bit of a lump, which didn’t help things, but really it was just a technical error on my part. In that respect, I only have myself to blame.”
Blunt and self-effacing, Croft actively discourages sob stories surrounding the stark nature of his ailment. Eight weeks in a neck brace relying on fiancée Harriett to wash his hair is evidently not worth analysing.
Beyond recalling a “doom and gloom” conversation with the specialist shortly after his operation – which actually touched on how close he came to paralysis – Croft resists indulgent retrospect. Besides anything else, the road ahead is of more interest to him.
Eleven days ago at Sixways, the 27 year-old made his first start for Richard Cockerill since the ill-fated spring, coming off ten minutes into the second half. Then, last Wednesday, his name appeared among Stuart Lancaster’s EPS squad.
London bus-like, two reasons to be cheerful have arrived at the end of a maddening wait punctuated by gym trips and scrupulous scans. However, it will surprise some that a solid, unspectacular shift during Leicester’s arduous 19-14 away win over Worcester was more satisfying than the reassurance that Croft remains part of England’s planning.
“It was a good [game] to start with,” he says, proud of his part in negotiating a tough Midlands tussle for Tigers. “I had hoped to be back slightly earlier but the club’s medical staff held me back.
“It was a real arm wrestle, which gave me an idea of where my body was at. My legs were screaming but because the pitch was heavy and in contact I got my head on the wrong side a few times, but that is nothing new. I was happy leaving the pitch and that is the main thing – I was just looking forward to getting that first game out of the way.
“[The EPS announcement] on top of that is more of a bonus really. The bottom line is that I have played 50 minutes in eight months. Being involved is a shock but it’s great, although my main focus is finding match fitness again. To do that, I have to put everything into the games I get for Leicester.”
Reflecting the well-worn way of Welford Road, Croft is acutely aware that club duty must eclipse everything else on his list of rugby priorities. An outfit that evaporates over-inflated egos rapidly, Leicester fiercely endorses a culture neatly personified by two men. One is director of rugby Cockerill, abrasive and uncompromising to the last. The other is Matt Hampson, a close friend of Croft’s who emerged less luckily from a broken neck in 2005.
Now a wheelchair-ridden quadriplegic, the former England Under-21 prop is a totem of persistence amid adversity. Having established the Hampson Foundation to aid young people affected by catastrophic injury, he is a life-affirming inspiration who single-handedly ensures that his old teammates retain a steadfast grip on reality.
“Hambo is an amazing guy,” Croft continues. “You only have to see how he has dealt with his injury to keep your own perspective on things. Of course it wasn’t the best place for me to get a break but that is all it was – a broken bone. It healed.
“I am not philosophical and I don’t think this has changed me as a person. You can dwell on things but Leicester look after you well and will not rush you back until both your body and your head are 100 per cent right. The environment just doesn’t allow for anything else.”
There is nothing contrived about Croft’s pragmatism. On the day that New Zealand were beaten so brilliantly at HQ, he was in the stands watching Tigers hold off Bath. Despite ringing Graham Rowntree a few times over his lay-off – often only able to chat to voicemail, he admits – Croft conducted the entirety of his rehabilitation at Oval Park. Promoting Wasps phenomenon Billy Vunipola from the Saxons to a place in the senior training group, Lancaster plainly thinks a Six Nations return is unlikely.
To that end, Croft has a narrow focus to adopt. It will not be easy – Steve Mafi, Julian Salvi, Thomas Waldrom, Jordan Crane comprise an intimidating set of back-row rivals who will probably occupy the match-day 22 for Sunday’s make-or-break Heineken Cup clash with Toulouse.
Even so, domestic dominance was a key factor in convincing Sir Ian McGeechan to bring Croft into the British and Irish Lions touring party to South Africa back in 2009. Three Test appearances, including a brace of tries in Durban’s opening encounter, subsequently led to an IRB Player of the Year nomination. This summer, Warren Gatland leads a siege on Australia. Despite the set-backs that blighted Croft’s 2012, it would be rude not to ask about the prospect of a Wallaby-hunting jaunt in June.
“I’m not even looking past February,” he laughs, before an undercurrent of international aspiration surfaces. “The summer is a long way off, though. England have an important tour to Argentina as well. Another with the Lions would be a bonus just like the EPS selection – that is the only way I could think about it.”
Out of the mire and into his stride, Croft is being handed unexpected rewards to recompense his immense patience. For now though, attention will not waver from steadfast commitment to Leicester. Everybody at Welford Road should be delighted.
By Charlie Morgan – Follow Charlie Morgan on Twitter — @CharlieFelix
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See below for a video interview with Tom: