AGED just 26, Tom Croft has picked up the unwanted tag of being the ‘old man’ of England’s back row – but as Wales come to town the Tigers flanker is vowing to show he’s very much alive and kicking.
Following a disastrous World Cup campaign, England’s cull was ruthless, with interim coach Stuart Lancaster opting for a Six Nations squad that was less Dad’s Army and more packed with baby-faced assassins.
And nowhere has that been felt more than in the back-row with debutants Phil Dowson and Ben Morgan, as well as the internationally inexperienced Chris Robshaw, filling the large boots left by former captains Lewis Moody and Nick Easter.
But one man remains from the trio who started the disappointing quarter-final loss to France in New Zealand, Croft taking his cap tally to 33 in victories in Scotland and Italy this campaign.
The three new faces have just seven appearances between them but Croft has quickly whipped them into shape, England’s strong defence picking up the slack of an attack that has crossed the whitewash just twice so far.
And while that gives Croft the sense of experience beyond his years, the Leicester Tiger is determined to show his teeth are more than ready to cut into this new way of thinking in the England camp.
“I keep getting called the old man of the back row but I would like to stress that I am only 26 so I think I am still relatively young,” said Croft, who landed an early victory over Saturday’s rival captain Ryan Jones in three competitions to launch SSErugby.com.
“The guys that have come into the back row have done really well and it is just a great thing to be a part of at the moment.
“It is full of enthusiasm and just full of guys who want to play well and work hard for each other.
“And in terms of being the old man, I am not sure about that and I would like to think I have a fair bit to offer still.
“I am not sitting here thinking I have done everything I can for England – far from it.
“I always want to improve and I will never come off a rugby pitch completely satisfied with the way I have played, whether it be a penalty here or a dropped ball there, there are always areas I can and want to improve.
“Things are going in the right direction and I think the new faces and the intensity that has rubbed off on everybody has certainly had the same effect on me.
“I want to win things and I know I still have areas to improve so I would like to consider myself part of that new and enthusiastic England too.”
Wales’ visit to Twickenham next weekend will pose the biggest threat to Lancaster’s new-look England, with Warren Gatland’s side having scored six tries compared to Charlie Hodgson’s two.
But with some set to take to Rugby HQ for the first time in England colours, Croft, who has made more than 100 appearances for Leicester, believes a nation’s pride can lift them to a third victory in as many games.
“I am really looking forward to the game and obviously playing at Twickenham is massive, especially for those guys currently sitting on two caps,” he added.
“They have been involved in two very tough away games and then to come back from Twickenham in front of a packed crowd is going to be absolutely massive so obviously the boys are looking forward to that.
“Playing at Twickenham is a massive opportunity and I just hope that those new boys don’t get caught in those headlines and the play the game we all know they are capable of playing.
“But I don’t buy into the argument that it is harder to play in front of your home fans and if anything playing at Twickenham gives you that extra five or ten per cent in terms of that excitement you feel even before you play the game.”
Tom Croft is an ambassador for SSE. To check out Tom going head to head against Wales’ second row star Ryan Jones in a series of three video challenges, head to www.sserugby.com and see who wins!