Croft relishes chance to show flexibility is a blessing

Versatility has been more a hindrance than a help for England's 'hybrid forward', writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online

Tom Croft's sense of timing is not obviously one of his strong suits. For one thing, he has an eye on a business career as a property developer – an interesting choice under current circumstances, as any ashen-faced economist will confirm – and for another, he is showing signs of versatility at a time when changes to the rugby rulebook could force him to spend the rest of his career in the dark dungeon of the second row, rather than on the sunlit uplands of the blind-side flank.

The 23-year-old Leicester forward was described by England manager Martin Johnson yesterday as a "hybrid" player. "Martin can call me whatever he wants and I'll accept it," said Croft, whose sense of self-preservation appears comparatively sound.

However, the prospects of him playing his international rugby in the boilerhouse, with his head stuck in the more unpleasantly sulphurous regions of the scrum, are increasing almost by the day. And if the custodians of the sport decide over the next few weeks to stick with – or even expand upon – the Experimental Law Variations currently in force in the northern hemisphere, he may find himself without a choice in the matter.

Croft currently sees himself as a loose forward, and with good reason. He is tall, fast and highly skilled – the nearest thing English rugby has to a modern-day Lawrence Dallaglio. "Perhaps when the pace starts to drop off, I'll start seeing myself more as a lock," he said. "To be honest, I'm happy to play wherever I'm put, so long as I'm in the team. But right now, the flank is my favoured position and I'd like to take my opportunity there."

Promoted above his arch-rival, James Haskell of Wasps, for this weekend's Six Nations meeting with France (who have some very decent "hybrids" of their own), this opportunity is the one he has craved since his last Test start, against Australia last November. Rather like Mathew Tait – and, before him, the more opinionated and infinitely louder Austin Healey – his positional flexibility has proved to be as much of a burden as it has a boon.

He made his debut against France as a substitute last year, since when his bench stints have outnumbered his starting ones.

This chance is precious to him, for that reason. He means to take it. "James has wished me the best of luck, as I do when he gets picked ahead of me," he said.

"There is a rivalry there, but it's a healthy one. We get along fine: we played England sevens and age-group rugby together and we know each other well, so there are no hard feelings. Anyway, these selection calls are always tight. As Martin says, it's all about the balance of the pack. We're different players with different strengths, and for this particular game, the coaches want what I bring to the mix."

France have also rearranged their back-row furniture, dropping the prodigy from Montpellier, Fulgence Ouedraogo, and plonking Sébastien Chabal – that Massif Central on oak-tree legs – alongside the super-athletic Biarritz line-out specialist Imanol Harinordoquy and the tackler-supreme from Toulouse, Thierry Dusautoir. It is, Croft concedes, one heck of a combination.

"He's a big unit, that Chabal, but as he plays his club rugby in England, we at least know what to expect," he said.

"We'll have to front up physically, while making sure we cut back on the transgressions. No one has put a try past us in this tournament while we've had 15 players on the field, so if we could just get those penalties down by half, we'll start winning games again."

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