Tom Croft concentrates on club before country in return to all-round peak for Leicester
Leicester 48 Sale 10
Tom Croft may have been erring on the side of modesty after Leicester's 48-10 thrashing of Sale on Saturday but the most impressive all-round performance of his five matches back after a shocking neck injury prompted the Leicester flanker only to describe the prospect of a second Lions tour this summer as a long shot.
"England would be a massive bonus after the sort of season I have had," said Croft, referring to his delayed start in January that followed the damage to his neck at Harlequins the previous April. "My first priority is getting back playing for Leicester and we are in search of silverware here at the club. If that leads to selection for an England side [to tour Argentina] in the summer, that would be a real bonus. I am focusing on the realistic side of things at the moment."
Croft played all three Tests on the 2009 Lions tour, including one as a replacement, scoring two tries, and on Saturday his 100th start for Leicester coincided with the Tigers posting the highest score of the Premiership season, eclipsing Exeter's 47-16 defeat of London Welsh a week previously. That the beaten teams were the bottom two in the Premiership indicated one of two things: Sale and London Welsh are in genuinely dire straits, or they were keeping their powder dry for better chances to win in other matches.
Sale's director of rugby, Steve Diamond, said his team would need two wins plus some bonus points from the remaining five rounds to stay up. One would imagine alarm bells clanging around the Salford City Stadium (hardly a palace of delight, anyway, given the troubles of the rugby league club who also play there) if the Sharks get nothing from their next two league matches against Bath at home and London Irish in Reading at the back end of this month. That is unless there is a table-turning outcome to tomorrow's hearing into the alleged ineligibility of London Welsh's Tyson Keats, which Diamond admitted was "out of our hands".
While most teams in the Premiership, including Leicester, now have a two-week break, Sale host Saracens in Sunday's LV Cup semi-final, with the winners of the following weekend's final qualifying for the Heineken Cup. It is a welcome distraction in the financial sense, given Sale's estimated £100,000 receipts (the away team receive a flat £5k) from the semi-final.
Croft's tackling, turnovers, support play and line-out work were all to the fore on Saturday and the lock Ed Slater and centre Matt Smith scored two tries each. Sale ran some pretty lines out of defence, particularly when Danny Cipriani came on to offer a floridly fascinating juxtaposition with George Ford's punchier, tighter distribution and running for Leicester. While Bath continue to deny that Ford is joining them next season, Sale have already agreed to re-sign the London Welsh hooker Neil Briggs, while two forwards Kearnan Myall (Wasps) and Richie Vernon (Glasgow) are definitely departing and it is thought Richie Gray will follow them, to France or another English club.
Leicester's big cup date is in April – the Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Toulon – by when their England luminaries Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Tom Youngs, Manu Tuilagi, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs will be back, almost certainly with the Six Nations Championship title to their names. Leicester are also well placed to challenge for a remarkable ninth straight Premiership final, and Croft said: "These are exciting times. I had a long time out on the sidelines and it was frustrating with little delays. Last Monday I got cleared to play every week and it was kind of the end of a chapter and I can start looking forward and backing up games."
He joked about the "nice new tie with no stains on it" to commemorate his century and the club cap that would cover his bald patch. Now, as Leicester remain determined to marry tradition with winning trophies, their coach, Richard Cockerill, and friends must work out ways of picking apart Toulon's expensively assembled galacticos.
Leicester: Tries Slater 2, penalty try, Smith 2, Tait; Conversions Ford 6; Penalties Ford 2.
Sale: Try Powell; Conversion Cipriani; Penalty Macleod.
Leicester M Tait (S Hamilton, 68); N Morris, M Smith, D Bowden (M Cornwell, 68), A Thompstone; G Ford, S Harrison (M Young, 54); M Ayerza (K Brookes, 68), R Hawkins (G Chuter, 68), L Mulipola (F Balmain, 30), E Slater, G Kitchener, T Croft (capt), J Salvi (B Deacon, 58), T Waldrom (J Crane, 50).
Sale C Shepherd; T Brady, J Leota, S Tuitupou (J Davies, 61), M Jennings; N Macleod (D Cipriani, 50), C Willis (N Fowles, 50); R Harrison (V Cobilas, 58), M Jones (T Taylor, 50), H Thomas (T Buckley, 58), J Gaskell, F McKenzie (R Gray, 50), D Braid, D Seymour (capt), R Vernon (A Powell, 44).
Referee W Barnes (London).
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