Croft: 'I learnt so much with the Lions – now I must perform for England'

Tom Croft shone in red but has rarely wowed in white. He tells Chris Hewett that he aims to rectify that today against Australia
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The Independent Online

Tom Croft, the nearest thing English rugby has to a young Lawrence Dallaglio, is the quickest forward in the country, by a margin best described either as Usainist or Boltish.

He puts this down to an entirely blameless spell of teenage activity in the West Berkshire Youth Dance Group – hardly the kind of thing that captured the imagination of his celebrated predecessor in the back row of the England scrum – and recommends it to those keen on improving their agility, co-ordination and all-round fitness. There is also a self-preservation element to consider. Anyone turning up for training at Leicester with a salsa outfit full of sequins hidden at the bottom of his kitbag needs to be bloody fast.

This time last year, the Basingstoke-born flanker was far too rapid for the Springboks, who might easily have lost their series against the British and Irish Lions solely because of him. Croft scored two tries in the Durban Test – his performance that day was nothing short of wondrous – and played another mighty hand in Pretoria a week later. So mighty, in fact, that he was adjudged too tired to start the last match of the series in Johannesburg and found himself named on the bench instead.

"South Africa was certainly an intense tour," he said after regaining his place in the national team for today's meeting with the Wallabies. "My England debut against France also sticks in the memory, probably because the experience was so new to me, and I've been involved in Heineken Cup games for Leicester, particularly against Ospreys last season, that were a real strain. But the series with the Boks, especially that afternoon in Pretoria, was exhausting. I'm happy to put my hand up and admit to being very tired in the week of the final Test: when the coaches identified it as the reason I didn't start the game, they were being straight. If I'd been asked to play I'd have pulled something out of myself – it was the Lions, after all. But I can't say, even now, that I was upset to be on the bench."

Not that the bench holds any attractions for him now. The 24-year-old line-out specialist featured in all three of England's internationals last autumn, but then broke down with knee ligament problems – first in December, and again six weeks later. It cost him the remainder of his club's European campaign and the whole of the Six Nations, during which James Haskell and Joe Worsley occupied the blind-side berth. Had either man pieced together a really strong body of work, Croft might not have come marching straight back in for a demanding personal duel with the Wallaby captain Rocky Elsom today.

But his skill-set is such that few selectors – not even these selectors, who make some extremely odd decisions at times – would ignore him for long. The England line-out, no great shakes at the moment, is in desperate need of his elasticity; the operation in the loose, frequently lumpen and unproductive, is crying out for someone with a touch of the afterburner about him. His place in this side was pretty much guaranteed before departure. All he needs to do now is play for his country the way he plays for his club ... and, indeed, played for the Lions a year ago.

"It's true that the Lions coaches used me a lot closer in, that I spent less time in the wide areas of the field," he said. "I came back thinking that the change had suited me; certainly, the experience of being used regularly in the more heavily populated parts of the pitch added an unbelievable amount to my game. I still enjoy the open spaces, especially in this part of the world where the surfaces are so good, but being asked to play differently has helped no end in my development as a player.

"But all that stuff about me not playing for England as I play for other teams comes down on my own shoulders. It's up to me to start delivering performances and this would be a good place to do it. I think we have plenty of potential: Toby Flood at outside-half is a flanker's dream, making all those crafty little half-breaks, and I think Shontayne Hape could be the same with his off-loading game.

"We know it's hard to win here, but if we can hit their runners early – chop them down there and then – we'll have a chance. It's about putting up the white wall in defence and going from there."