Croft back on top with new England work ethic


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The Independent Online

It is hard to believe that young England players were mocked by more experienced colleagues for training too hard during the World Cup. Five months on, red-rose rugby has rediscovered its values. As Tom Croft said yesterday, everyone trains hard now.

The Leicester flanker's contribution to the win in France last weekend was crucial: even if he had not scored a high-class try deep in the second half, his line-out and defensive work would have marked him out. According to Croft, his best display in a Test jersey since the 2009 Lions series in South Africa was the product of intense preparation.

"You work a little bit harder now because you're surrounded by people doing exactly the same thing," said the 26-year-old. "You don't want to be the guy letting the side down. Everyone is out there setting benchmarks, so you need to be the person superseding those benchmarks. There has been a ratchet effect in training with players working as hard as they can and it's lifted the whole team. When you train now, you want to be the guy who inspires."

Croft was dynamism made flesh in the first two contests with the Springboks three summers ago. Yet Stephen Ferris would almost certainly have beaten him to a Test place had he not mangled knee ligaments. The Ulsterman has been brilliant in this Six Nations. And who will Croft face at Twickenham this weekend? You guessed it.

"Ferris is a world-class player, no doubt about it," said Croft. "He works hard, he hits hard. Twice in the last year I've been involved in teams caught cold by the Irish: for England in Dublin in the 2011 Six Nations and for Leicester against Ulster in this season's Heineken Cup. Irish rugby is strong at the moment. They'll be a big threat"

Chris Robshaw is the workaholic role in this England back row – he made 25 tackles in Paris – and as a result, there is freedom for Croft and Ben Morgan, the new No 8, to trip the light fantastic.

"I think Ben has grown massively," Croft. "Seeing him make that run and deliver that little pass out of the back of his hand to set up our second try against France – it's exactly what you want from a ball-carrying No 8. It's the sort of thing that leaves everyone wanting the ball in their hands. We all want to be better than each other."

Fair enough. But did Croft really need to stand on the face of Phil Dowson, in a mad scramble on the England line? "In my defence," he said, "Phil was knocked out before I stood on him."

Dowson plays for Northampton, who have an age-old rivalry with Leicester. The spirit in the England camp? Good, but not that good.