Dancer, sprinter and flanker – Croft's an original

England's back-row blond is so much more than a 'hybrid' player, as France will discover at Twickenham today, so his move into property development can wait
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Forget the sprightly scrum-halves Kieran Bracken and Austin Healey who, in their retirement, have hit the screens as dancers and ice skaters; this is a first. Tom Croft was a member of the West Berkshire Youth Dance Group, where he studied contemporary, modern and street dancing. He attributes his athleticism and agility to strictly WBYDG.

Croft is in for today's Six Nations humdinger against France at Twickenham, at the expense of his pal James Haskell, another dynamic member of the back-row union. Haskell might have been thinking that he has paid a heavy price for announcing, in mid-season, that he will be leaving his beloved Wasps – since he was knee- high to a bee he had dreamed of playing for Lawrence Dallaglio's club – for Stade Français.

Martin Johnson, the England manager, was not amused. His warning to those who would leave the Guinness Premiership was, basically, out of sight out of mind. Johnson was not of a mind to catch the Eurostar out of St Pancras on a Friday night or Saturday morning to watch a "defector". He would rather take the train to the Midlands where, at his old stamping ground, Welford Road in Leicester, he could monitor the form of at least half-a-dozen Red Rose candidates, including Croft.

And what a player he is. We said in these pages a few months ago that the best flankers in the land were Croft and Tom Rees, but the obvious does not always strike Johnson between the furrowed brow.

His selections, not unlike his predecessors', have been questionable. The choice of Simon Shaw for Nick Kennedy is a case in point. Shaw, now regarded as a veteran, has always put his hands up but his international career has been interrupted by more departures than arrivals, and that is a very strange thing considering that most countries would welcome him with open arms.

Whereas the gigantic Shaw will be required to do a job against an even more gigantic French pack, he is not expected to feature in the next World Cup. Croft is. Johnson saw him play for Leicester against Gloucester at Welford Road last weekend and the flanker had a stormer. How he didn't score a try – and he is well accustomed to crossing the line – was down to the extraordinary defence of a beaten but unbowed Gloucester.

Croft has been selected, and then omitted, by Johnson in the past, to the bemusement of the England supporters and, less surprisingly, of the adoring fans of the Tigers, where a formidable pack helped to raise his game and his name. The good news for Croft is that he is back in the Red Rose brigade – the bad is that he is described by Johnson as a "hybrid" player. So was Healey, so was Josh Lewsey, Mark Cueto, Mathew Tait and anybody else chosen in a position they don't particularly favour. And as for the sacking of the wing Paul Sackey... well, the poor boy has hardly received a decent pass in the championship.

A hybrid? "Martin can call me whatever he wants and I'll accept it," says Croft, who at 6ft 5in and almost 16 1/2 stone could be considered a lock forward. Of course he would. They all would, but it still does not make much sense. "To be honest, I am happy to play wherever I am put, so long as I'm in the team. But right now the flank is my favoured position and I would like to take my opportunity there."

He has been described as the next Dallaglio but even the great old Wasps, England and Lions warhorse didn't have the pace of Croft who, in a footrace at Welford Road, would be second only to the wing Tom Varndell. And that is very quick indeed.

But so, of course, is Haskell, who has been demoted to the bench but is more likely than not to make an appear-ance at some stage this afternoon. The two are the epitome of the modern back-row forward and have been going head to head for a couple of seasons, but Croft is now in the lead.

"James wished me the best of luck, as I do when he gets picked ahead of me," Croft says. "There is a rivalry there but it is a healthy one. We get along fine." They probably talk about music, females and rugby, but not necessarily in that order. "James and I played 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 are different players with different strengths, and for this particular game the coaches want what I bring to the mix."

The England back row of Croft at six, Nick Easter at eight and Joe Worsley at openside is going to have one of the collisions of the season against the French trio of Thierry Dusautoir, Imanol Harinordoquy and Sébastien Chabal. In their victory over Wales in Paris, which has given Les Bleus an outside chance of nicking the championship, Dusautoir and Harinordoquy (the alphabet is just about covered) were outstanding, especially in the second half.

Chabal, the "Caveman" who plays for Sale, has been brought in at No 7 in place of Montpellier's Fulgence Ouedraogo, and that is a surprise considering that England usually have his number. Subtlety is not Chabal's game. "He's a big unit, that Chabal, but as he plays his club rugby in England we at least know what to expect," says Croft. Indeed they do. Worsley and Co will be tackling blue jerseys for most of the afternoon. Or vice versa.

England are carrying a hangover, not only from their defeats by Wales and Ireland but from the little matter of a pack of 10 yellow cards and more than 60 penalties conceded in the past four games. It smacks of desperation in defence. As the manager, and a former card-carrying member of the Leicester and England packs, Johnson has to take some responsibility for the outbreak of indiscipline.

Haskell, aside from taking his passport to Paris, has been one of the leading sin-binners, joining the yellow peril for swinging an arm to an opponent's head during the heavy defeat against New Zealand at Twickenham at the end of November and getting another, for a trip (only when players are at the end of their frustration do they commit such a cheap shot) against Italy at the same ground in February.

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

To that end England have had the referee Wayne Barnes in their training camp at Pennyhill Park in Bagshot to remind them what they can and cannot do under the laws of the game. The management and players are professional – they shouldn't need reminding. So far Croft has managed to keep a clean sheet, and last weekend he was up close to referee Barnes in the Leicester-Gloucester Premiership match when the visitors committed indiscretions almost on an England scale.

Croft, who is 23, says he wants to become a property developer. Stupid boy. He has a great future with Leicester and England, and it's all there in his background and upbringing. He represented England Schools, Under-21s, the ultra-fit, ultra-mobile sevens squad and the second-tier Saxons before making his senior debut as a replacement against France last year.

Born in Basingstoke, he spent five years with Newbury, where he went to school at Park House, before moving to Leicester. The Tigers aren't half bad at spotting talent, although in Croft's case it wasn't that difficult – many other clubs would have wished they'd got his signature first.

When he played a significant role in directing the U21s to a Grand Slam conclusion over Wales in 2006, he was named man of the match, and the following year he scored the winning try for the Saxons in the Churchill Cup final against the New Zealand Maori.

Croft may be young but he's served his apprenticeship and deserves a decent run. Property development can wait.

Today's teams

England: D Armitage; M Cueto, M Tindall, R Flutey, U Monye; T Flood, H Ellis; A Sheridan, L Mears, P Vickery, S Shaw, S Borthwick, T Croft, J Worsley, N Easter.

Replacements: D Hartley, J White, N Kennedy, J Haskell, D Care, A Goode, M Tait.

France: M Médard; J Malzieu, M Bastareaud, Y Jauzion, C Heymans; F Trinh-Duc, M Parra; L Faure, D Szarzewski, S Marconnet, L Nallet, J Thion, T Dusautoir, S Chabal, I Harinordoquy.

Replacements: B Kayser, T Domingo, L Picamoles, J Bonnaire, S Tillous-Borde, F Fritz, D Traille.

REFEREE: S Dickinson (Australia).

KICK-OFF: 3pm. TV: BBC1.

Comments