It is still hard to believe that young players were mocked by more experienced international colleagues for the heinous sin of training too hard during a World Cup, but then there were a lot of scarcely believable things about the England team as managed by Martin Johnson and company. Five months on from that benighted adventure in All Black country, red-rose rugby has rediscovered its values, its professionalism, its honesty. As Tom Croft said yesterday, everyone trains hard now.
The Leicester flanker's contribution to the fine Six Nations win in France last weekend was, by common consent, crucial: even if he had not scored the high-class try that gave England a two-score cushion deep in the second half, his line-out and defensive work would have marked him out as the best visiting player on view. According to Croft, his all-round performance – his best in a Test jersey since the 2009 Lions series in South Africa – was the product of a more intense approach to preparation.
"You work a little bit harder now because you're surrounded by people doing exactly the same thing," said the 26-year-old, who had been an early candidate for the national captaincy following the retirement of his old clubmate Lewis Moody. "You don't want to be the guy not doing it, 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, brutally hard contests with the Springboks three summers ago and no one who saw him stampeding his way through Durban and Pretoria will easily forget it. Yet certain details of that tour are not so readily recalled, including the fact that Stephen Ferris, the Ulsterman, would almost certainly have beaten Croft to a Test place had he not mangled his knee ligaments early in the tour. Ferris is still hampered by problems in that department – indeed, it is commonly said in Ireland that if he is not in constant pain, it is because there is nothing left of the knee to hurt him – but this has not stopped him playing brilliantly in this championship. And who does Croft face at Twickenham this weekend? You guessed it.
"If he's missing a knee, it doesn't seem to be stopping him," the Englishman said. "Ferris is a world-class player, no doubt about it: he works hard, he hits hard. If it hadn't been for that injury in South Africa, I probably wouldn't have had my chance. That tour was a big step for me, and I'd like to think some things are falling into place again now. But 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, the Harlequins flanker who beat Croft and a small handful of other candidates to the captaincy, plays the workaholic role in this England back row – he made 25 tackles in Paris, a very decent tally by any standards – and as a result, there is freedom for others to express themselves in attack. Both Croft and Ben Morgan, the new No 8, were able to trip the light fantastic at the Stade de France and it may just be that the coaches have pieced together a seriously constructive unit.
"I think Ben has grown massively," Croft said of Morgan, a little disconcertingly given the emphasis on getting the unusually substantial Gloucester-bound forward to lose weight. "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. He's not just a bloke who trucks it up, but someone who can beat defenders and create holes. It's the sort of thing that leaves everyone wanting the ball in their hands. That's the point about this environment: we all want to be better than each other."
Fair enough. But did Croft really need to stand on the face of a fellow back-rower, the substitute Phil Dowson, in a mad scramble on the England line? "In my defence," he said, "Phil was knocked out before I stood on him. And anyway, it's a contact sport. These things happen."
Dowson, of course, plays for Northampton, who have an age-old derby rivalry with Leicester. No wonder Croft was laughing. The spirit in the England camp? Good, but not that good.Reuse content