Croft’s return to England duty caps flanker’s amazing recovery

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Amid all the changes head coach Stuart Lancaster has made to a buoyant England side that is all set to continue its march to a grand-slam showdown in Cardiff next week, it is the appearance of a player on the bench that is the most encouraging sign.

Tom Croft is back in the England fold just 11 months after suffering a triple break to vertebrae in his neck and a burst disc that nearly left him paralysed.

The 27-year-old flanker has only been back in competitive action for Leicester Tigers for two months, playing just five games in that time, yet such is the credit he had built up for England in 39 previous Tests, he has been brought back into the fold quicker than expected.

He was in shock yesterday at the speed of his recovery having nearly been paralysed because he mistimed a routine tackle on Harlequins’ No 8 Nick Easter.

Croft was operated on the following day by renowned surgeon Peter Hamlyn, who realigned the “crazy paving” and inserted a metal plate, cage and screws.

He spent eight weeks in a neck brace and had returned to light training when Hamlyn outlined just how close to being catastrophic the injury was.

That briefly knocked Croft for six. The 27-year-old is close friends with Matt Hampson, the former Leicester prop who was paralysed when a scrum collapsed in on an England Under-21 training session in 2005.

Many players would have counted their good fortune and called it a day, but Croft was inspired to continue, partly by the spirit and verve with which Hampson has dealt with his injury.

“It was a pretty depressing subject,” said Croft. “When I saw him for the second time after the operation he explained what had been done and said ‘this is pretty much as close as can be to being paralysed’.

“I probably didn’t need to be told that. I had taken the collar off, I was back in training and then he tells you that. It was a hard thing to be told.

“If anything ‘Hambo’ helped. He is one of the most upbeat characters there is, especially what has happened to him.

“It would be very easy for him to become a recluse, but he is out there doing things for the foundation and it gave me that little bit of hope that if anything did happen it was not the be-all and end-all.

“Fortunately, I was in the best possible hands and didn’t have to deal with that.

“The metal plate is about five inches. It stays in there and the bone grows around it. That is probably the strongest part of my neck.

“You play a contact sport, there is potential for things to happen, a very small percentage. But Hambo has come through it and achieved massive things. It gives you that hope.

“In a way it was good I was told (how severe the injury was) because it made me realise how hard I had to work to get back strong enough and back to the place where I am now.”

Lancaster stressed yesterday that this fast-tracking of Croft should not be regarded as a rushing back of the versatile flanker.

Indeed, the head coach has been as studious as ever in analysing whether Croft was fit for purpose, and he believes he looks as sharp as ever.

“The key point was I wanted to be sure he was back up to speed,” said Lancaster of a man he named as a starter in all five of England’s Six Nations matches last season.

“He was a key figurehead last year and while the team has evolved the principles have remained the same.

“He runs great lines in attack, he is back up to speed in our defence and it is great to have him back in the side.”

Lancaster has made five changes to the team that beat France 
23-13. Saracens prop Mako Vunipola will make his first start in place of Joe Marler at loosehead with Tom Youngs taking over at hooker from Dylan Hartley.

Wasps flanker James Haskell returns on the blindside in place of Courtney Lawes and England go into the game with a new half-back combination.

Toby Flood takes over at fly-half from Owen Farrell, who is recovering from a strained thigh muscle suffered and rated at 80 per cent, and Danny Care gets his chance at scrum-half in place of Ben Youngs. That Lancaster can freshen up his selection emphasises the strength of the weapons at his disposal.

He believes that unleashing players who have been restricted to bench duty can enhance England’s performance, a point which applies particularly to Care.

The Leeds-born scrum-half has been chomping at the bit for a starting berth after coming off the bench twice, once in try-scoring fashion against Scotland.

Lancaster said: “They (Care and Ben Youngs) are unbelievably close. They are both high-quality players, in great form and in great condition and pushing each other. Danny has waited patiently for his opportunity. In freshening the team up, sometimes when you have a guy who is desperate to play that can help the team.”

Vunipola and Tom Youngs both made strong impressions off the bench against France, tightening up an English side which creaked at times, and they have been rewarded.

“Mako gets his first start and everyone is delighted with that. He has thoroughly deserved his chance and we are looking forward to seeing how he goes,” said Lancaster.

“All the front rowers looked at that (the scrum) and bringing Mako in for his start and Tom in for his scrummaging and ball carrying, it will hopefully address that.”

nick.westby@ypn.co.uk