Six Nations: Stuart Lancaster welcomes Tom Croft back to England fold after serious injury
A year on from being nearly paralysed by a broken neck, England flanker could face Italy
First, the bad news from the England camp, as reported by the head coach Stuart Lancaster yesterday: Owen Farrell, a big hit at outside-half in more ways than one, will definitely miss this weekend's penultimate Six Nations game against Italy at Twickenham. And the good news? That surrounded the high-class flanker Tom Croft, who has suddenly reappeared in the selection mix after a serious neck injury and may yet play a part in this tournament, against all the odds.
The Leicester flanker, one of the stand-out players for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa four years ago and a matchwinner for England against the French in Paris this time last year, has played less than five hours of senior rugby this season, but in delivering a performance of rich quality in his club's comprehensive Premiership victory over Sale on Saturday, he made what Lancaster considered to be an open-and-shut case for immediate reinstatement to the red-rose squad.
After discussions with the Leicester rugby director, Richard Cockerill, and the various medical teams involved in Croft's rehabilitation, Lancaster brought forward plans to reintegrate the 27-year-old – plans that had until yesterday been based around a return to England colours on the tour of Argentina this summer. Croft may even make a late pitch for a place on the forthcoming Lions tour of Australia. With two Six Nations games available to him, not to mention Leicester's challenge on both the domestic and European fronts, he has plenty of opportunity to showcase himself.
"There has never been a selection decision to be made about Tom; only a medical one," Lancaster said. "The big marker for us was that he played back-to-back games for Leicester, and that box was ticked at the weekend. He is one of our most experienced players and it seems he is right back in form. Has he played enough to be considered for international rugby? Yes, I think so. He's delighted to be back with us, and I'm delighted to have him here."
Croft damaged his neck in mistiming a tackle on the former England No 8, Nick Easter, during a Premiership match at Harlequins last April. The diagnosis was grim: a triple fracture of the C6 vertebra, which could easily have left him paralysed. He spent two months in a neck brace, which he was forced to wear 24 hours a day.
He did not return to big-time rugby until early January, by which time England had fought their way through a hard tour of South Africa and played an entire autumn series without him. Before his comeback outing against Worcester, he confessed to having experienced bitter feelings of helplessness and frustration.
"It was an extremely serious injury," Lancaster confirmed. "The surgeon did a fantastic job with Tom, as did the Leicester medical staff. We'll see how he goes in training over the next couple of days: he hasn't been with us at all since last year's Six Nations and quite a few of our calls and signals have changed, so he'll have to show us that he's up to speed. But yes, he's under consideration for the Italy game, and yes, I believe he's ready to start the game if that's what we decide to do."
Farrell, that embodiment of midfield aggression who strained a thigh muscle during the victory over France a week and a half ago, is still not ready to resume goal-kicking, and Lancaster is in no mood to compromise his recovery by rushing him back – especially as Freddie Burns of Gloucester has been declared fit and available following his own recovery from injury. Burns returned to club action last Friday night and while he failed to reach close of play, he was withdrawn because of cramp rather than any recurrence of his recent knee ligament problems.
"You can take it from all this that Toby Flood will start at No 10 against Italy," said Lancaster, referring to the experienced Leicester outside-half who has played second fiddle to Farrell since the start of the tournament. The coach was unwilling to shed light on his thinking in other areas of selection, although the Saracens prop Mako Vunipola, the Leicester hooker Tom Youngs and the Harlequins scrum-half Danny Care are all thought to be in with a strong chance of promotion from the bench.
Exeter's Sandy Park added to World Cup list
England Rugby 2015 has added Exeter's Sandy Park to the list of potential venues for the Rugby World Cup. The home of the Exeter Chiefs has been added in case Bristol City's planned redevelopment of Ashton Gate causes problems with the stadium's availability.
Ashton Gate remains on the list but organisers wanted to ensure that there was an alternative in the South-west if the redevelopment causes problems.
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