Tom Croft has been hailed as “a special player” as he prepares to continue his remarkable comeback from serious injury in Australia today.
Croft will line up for the British and Irish Lions against Western Force in Perth, a selection that underlines his commitment and determination almost as much as his considerable ability.
It is little more than a year ago that the Leicester and England back-row forward broke his neck in a game for Tigers against Harlequins.
Croft, 27, was told by medical experts that he had been perilously close to being left paralysed, but he is now playing at the peak of his powers again after recovering from surgery in which a metal plate and four screws were inserted in his neck.
And he will resume Lions business four years after producing a starring role in a punishing Test series against South Africa when the tourists suffered an agonising 2-1 defeat.
“He’s a special player is Tom,” Lions and England assistant coach Graham Rowntree said.
“I have known him since he was a young man in the Leicester academy in my Leicester days. He has done exceptionally well to come back from a nasty injury. But his form towards the end of the season, indeed from February and March, was such that we couldn’t ignore it as England selectors, and those performances have got him on the plane for this trip.
“He has got good competition. Dan Lydiate played very well on Saturday, so the challenge is there for Tom, and we’ve got other guys in the back row that can play six as well.”
With 15 players having already started for the Lions on tour, another 15 get their opportunity to impress head coach Warren Gatland, while the remaining seven are set for a chance against Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.
Among today’s line-up is Ireland hooker Rory Best, who was summoned barely 24 hours before the Lions left London following original selection Dylan Hartley’s sending-off in the Aviva Premiership final and subsequent ban. “He [Best] is a very professional player, very intelligent and knows what he has to do,” Rowntree added.
“He came in relatively late, but he has quickly got up to speed with how we are doing things.
“He has brought a lot of experience – the more leaders we can have around the group, the better. I have been very impressed with Rory. I am expecting good things from him tomorrow.”
Rowntree has underlined the Lions’ ambition to raise the performance bar in today’s game against opposition forced to also have one eye on next Sunday’s Super Rugby appointment with the Waratahs.
Four days after blitzing the Barbarians in hot and humid Hong Kong, an entirely-changed team will launch the Lions’ nine-game Australian tour schedule.
“I thought we set the bar fairly high on Saturday in difficult conditions,” Rowntree said.
“A lot of our proven guys that have played a lot of games found those conditions harder than anything, harder than altitude or anything like that.
“In difficult conditions and our first hit-out together, the guys set a high standard, and tomorrow’s crew have got to move that bar up again.
“We’ve said to the guys the first three games everyone gets a start, so after the Reds game I think we have got to start making some decisions on combinations and having a look at people.
“And certainly by the Waratahs and ACT [Brumbies] games, we need to know who we are going to start with in the [first] Test but, at this point in time, there is everything there to play for for everyone.
“I think we’ve got a great group of players – it is an exceptional group.
“It [Western Force team] is not a bad team. There are not a lot of guys there who have played a lot of Super Rugby but it still looks a strong enough team for me.
“There has been a lot of local chat about how they want to play this game, how physical they want to make this game, and we’ve got to meet that challenge, whoever is on the field.”
Lions captain Sam Warburton will return to full training today, while Welsh prop Gethin Jenkins took part in all of yesterday’s session in a major boost for the tourists’ Test ambitions.
Flanker Warburton, a certain starter for the three Tests against the Australians, missed the opening 59-8 win over the Barbarians in Hong Kong on Saturday because of a knee problem and has completed limited solo training in Perth with his leg heavily strapped.
Jenkins was also absent in Hong Kong because of a long-standing calf issue but both will be in contention to play against the Queensland Reds in Brisbane on Saturday.
“Gethin trained fully and Sam will train fully tomorrow [Wednesday]. He didn’t quite do everything today but he will be fine for tomorrow,” confirmed Lions assistant Rowntree.