Saturday, March 09, 2013
Croft back from the brink and buzzing
By Mitch Phillips
BAGSHOT, England (Reuters) - Professional rugby is often described as a game of fine margins and England flanker Tom Croft would be the first to agree after coming perilously close to being paralysed after breaking his neck making a tackle last April.
Remarkably, Croft will be on the bench for England in their Six Nations game against Italy on Sunday as after just five hours of game time for Leicester, England coach Stuart Lancaster felt he had done enough to come back into the international fold.
Croft is a heavier specimen now than when he was starring for the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2009 and athletically dominating England's lineouts during last year's Six Nations, and it is not just because of the extra 4kg of protective muscle bulk he has put on around his shoulders and neck.
He is also now the proud owner of a 12cm metal plate, four titanium screws and a metal cage, into which part of his spine has fused, during a tough recovery process.
"It's pretty depressing subject," he told reporters on Friday after being named in squad to face Italy.
"When I saw the surgeon a few weeks into my recovery he said this is as close as it could be to being paralysed. It was hard to hear at the time, I was all upbeat thinking the recovery was going well, but in hindsight it was probably good that I realised how serious the injury was as it made me realise how seriously I would have to work to recover."
Croft sustained the damage making an innocuous looking tackle on his England team mate Nick Easter, then playing for Harlequins, and says it was his own fault for his poor technique.
"Sometimes you catch the wrong angle, it's one of those things," he said. "You can get a complete freak accident in rugby - which is what happened with "Hambo".
Croft's former Leicester team mate Matt Hampson was paralysed from the neck down after a scrummaging accident training with England under-21s in 2005. Hampson has since raised huge sums for charity, co-written an award-winning autobiography and become an inspirational public speaker.
Croft said the achievements of his friend not only inspired him in his recovery but made him less fearful of the consequences of any future catastrophic injury.
"If anything, he probably helps," Croft said. "He's the most upbeat character going, especially after what happened to him. He's out there doing things for the (Matt Hampson) Foundation, speaking, talking to people. If anything it gave me that bit of hope that if some did happen it's not the be all and end all."
Croft, by a matter of millimetres, escaped his friend's fate and instead was able to pour his energies into his recovery.
"I didn't think 'am I risking it?'"," he said. "It was never 'should I?', it was 'when?'
"Leicester being Leicester, we had a huge contact session the week I got back. I was a bit tentative at the start but was soon flying in.
"Originally the idea was that I couldn't play until March until the bone had fused between the two vertebrae but I was able to ease my way back in January."
Having been such an integral part of the England set-up under Martin Johnson and Lancaster, Croft found it hard sitting on the sidelines as his team mates got along nicely without him.
"It was almost disbelief watching the New Zealand game," he said of England's stunning December victory over the world champions. "Here's England pulling New Zealand apart and it's great, but then there's the frustration that you're not involved.
"That's why I'm so pumped to come into a side who are playing well, the buzz around the camp is great and it's great to be a part of that."
Croft was shocked to get the call up having already planned a holiday for this weekend but says having come through five games for Leicester and getting the all-clear from the medical staff, he will not be thinking about the injury at all.
"I've been so excited to be playing, just to get on the pitch is such a buzz," he said. "There's no risk for me now. I've changed my warm-up a bit but it's not at the back of mind.
"It's nice to be back in the mindset thinking only about the game and not the injury."
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)