Tom Croft's perfect timing creates late Six Nations opportunity
Leicester flanker makes comeback from neck injury and could claim place in England squad
Tom Croft has a funny knack of being in the right place at the right time – think back to the Lions series against the Springboks in 2009, or England's fine victory over the French in Paris last year – but, by returning to Premiership action for Leicester at this moment, he is likely to generate more questions than answers.
If the 27-year-old flanker comes through unscathed against Worcester tonight, he will press an unexpectedly strong case for inclusion in the 32-man England squad for the forthcoming Six Nations, due to be announced next Wednesday.
Croft suffered a serious neck injury when he mistimed a tackle on his one-time England back-row colleague Nick Easter during a league match at Harlequins last April and has not played senior rugby since.
The feeling at Leicester is that he is nowhere near ready for Test rugby, even off the bench: they point out that he is currently being managed as much by the club's medical staff as by the coaching staff, and that his playing time will be strictly rationed until the back end of March.
But Croft was injured when Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, last named an elite squad last July and it may be that the man in charge is reluctant to deprive himself of a player of such unusual gifts, both as a line-out jumper and an explosive ball-carrier.
If Lancaster sticks with him, someone in the phalanx of England back-rowers will be squeezed out – quite possibly the long-suffering Phil Dowson, who has drifted towards the margins of the national squad, despite his bristling form for Northampton.
Leicester travel across the Midlands to Sixways heavily armed. Croft is part of an unusually substantial loose-forward unit featuring the Tongan forward Steve Mafi on the opposite flank and Thomas Waldrom, the recently deposed Test No 8, at the back of the pack.
Mathew Tait, one of English rugby's lost talents, will be given another run at full-back, but there is no place for Manu Tuilagi, a little short of his best since making some serious dents in the opposition during his adopted country's startling victory over the All Blacks last month. Matt Smith replaces him at outside centre.
Meanwhile, the chaotic comings and goings at Sale continued today with the arrival of the 31-year-old All Black breakaway forward Daniel Braid, who played the last of his eight Tests for New Zealand in 2010.
"He joins us at a critical stage of our season," said the Salford-based club's chief executive Steve Diamond, who has taken on the additional duties of rugby director for the second time this season after the abrupt exit of another former All Black back-rower, John Mitchell, a few days ago. "Daniel is a hard-working flanker who tackles and reads the game well. He is an important signing for us and I'm sure he will fit in perfectly."
The son of Gary Braid, who won All Black Test caps as a lock in the 1980s, the newcomer is a hardened Super Rugby veteran, having turned out for both the Blues in Auckland and the Reds in Queensland.
Like many high-class open-side flankers in the land of the silver fern he found himself playing second fiddle at international level to Richie McCaw, and opted for a move abroad after failing to secure a contract for this year's Super 15 tournament, which begins next month.
Even though he plays in the position currently occupied by the Sale captain David Seymour, the New Zealander is seen as a significant capture by a club still slumming it at the foot of the table after months of turmoil on the personnel front.
As they were celebrating Braid's arrival today, the club were bidding a reluctant farewell to Hendre Fourie, the naturalised South African who was first capped by England in 2010 and was within touching distance of making the squad for the 2011 World Cup.
Fourie played only three games for Sale after moving from Leeds, where his aggressive ball-winning performances earned him the respect of his peers. He has been suffering from serious shoulder problems for the last 15 months and, after three bouts of surgery, has retired on medical advice.
Former Australia coach Bob Dwyer, 72, who also took charge of Leicester and Bristol, is recovering after suffering a heart attack.
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