Whatever problems the England coach Stuart Lancaster felt he was facing in his log-jammed back row ahead of the autumn Tests against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand in a few weeks' time – and those problems were undeniably acute – the news he received from Leicester today was unwelcome in the extreme. Tom Croft, one of the world's outstanding line-out forwards, was ruled out of all rugby for the rest of the season after undergoing surgery on a mangled knee ligament.
Croft's tussle over the red-rose No 6 shirt with the Northampton flanker Tom Wood – and, perhaps, with the current Test captain, Chris Robshaw of Harlequins, and the new kid on the England block, Billy Vunipola of Saracens – promised to pose one of the selectorial conundrums of the season, as well as providing one of the highlights. That prospect has now evaporated into nothing. As well as missing the autumn internationals, he is out of the 2014 Six Nations and, in all probability, next summer's tour of All Black country.
It is the most soul-destroying of developments for the 27-year-old new-age back-rower, whose recovery from a serious neck injury that could easily have left him paralysed – he now plays with a metal plate where his muscles used to be – was one of the good-news stories of last season. To suddenly be confronted with another lengthy period of injury rehabilitation must be just about as much as flesh and blood can stand.
He suffered the injury towards the end of his club's opening Premiership game against Worcester at Welford Road last weekend. "He took a bang on the knee, which seemed innocuous," reported Richard Cockerill, the Midlanders' director of rugby, "but it felt sore the next morning and after further investigation, it appeared he had damaged the anterior cruciate ligament. He's had surgery on it and it is likely that his season is over.
"It's horrendous luck for Tom and a big blow for us. These things happen in sport and he will make a full recovery in time, but it was only last season that he returned from his neck injury to play so well for us, for England and for the Lions in Australia. We look forward to welcoming him back when he his recovery is complete."
If Croft is in need of solace – and given his recent record of orthopaedic trauma, he would be less than human if he isn't – he might cast his mind back to the events of the Lions series against the Wallabies, when the tourists' medical team performed a series of minor miracles in fast-tracking a number of injured players into Test contention against all reasonable expectations. The Wales backs George North and Jamie Roberts, the Ireland wing Tommy Bowe and the England prop Alex Corbisiero all made significant contributions to a famous triumph after being written out of the script by the coaching staff.
However, knee-ligament injuries of the kind suffered by the Leicester man rarely lend themselves to the "magic bullet" treatment. If Cockerill, on the advice of the doctors at Welford Road, does not expect to see his most athletic forward again this term, Lancaster and his fellow England coaches must resign themselves to negotiating an entire international season without him.
Meanwhile, the hard-pressed Wallabies have gambled wildly in an attempt to end their humiliating losing streak by dropping Will Genia, the world's best scrum-half and occasional national captain, for this weekend's Rugby Championship meeting with Argentina in Perth. Nic White, first-choice No 9 with the Canberra-based Brumbies, will start the game, with Genia on the bench.
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