Leicester flanker Tom Croft talks to Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis about his return to the England set-up
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 11/01/13 7:18pm
Tom Croft has admitted that his inclusion in England's elite playing squad came as a shock.
The highly-rated flanker only made his long-awaited return to action against Worcester at the start of January having spent a frustrating eight-month spell on the sidelines with a serious neck injury.
The 27-year-old Leicester Tiger suffered a triple fracture of his C6 vertebrae after a mistimed tackle in the Aviva Premiership clash with Harlequins back in April.
However, England head coach Stuart Lancaster has kept faith in Croft after naming him in a 33-man squad ahead of the RBS Six Nations.
And although Lancaster admits that the start of the championship - against Scotland at Twickenham on February 2 - will come too soon for Croft, his importance to England's long-term plans are clear.
For Croft, though, he knows that he needs to prove himself with the Tigers once again before he can look too far ahead.
"First and foremost I've got to get back playing in the Leicester team - and that will not be easy in itself," Croft told Sky Sports.
"Stuart has said that the start of the Six Nations will come too soon so I will play for Leicester and see how I go fitness and form-wise. Hopefully I can sneak in towards the end of the championship.
"In all honesty, though, it was a shock to have been named in the squad. As and when I play will now be down to Stuart and Graham (Rowntree, England's forwards coach).
"There is a lot of competition for places and the guys in the shirts will be looking to stay there after the autumn Tests.
"It was frustrating watching those games but it has got my thirst back to its peak."
In the loop
During his absence Leicester reached the Premiership final - losing to Quins - while England toured South Africa in the summer and then recorded an historic win over New Zealand in the autumn internationals.
And having seen him spend so long out, England have opted to take a softly-softly approach with Croft's return.
However they have increased their contact with him as he neared his return to the action.
Croft said: "For the first three, four, five months they left me to my own devices as it was what I needed as my return was so far away.
"However I have spoken to them over the last couple of months and they have kept me in the loop."
Croft made his debut for Leicester in 2005 as a bright-eyed 20-year-old, while his England debut followed three years later.
A stellar start to his international career saw him earn a place on the plane to South Africa with the British and Irish Lions in 2009 - with Croft going on to play in all three Tests, scoring twice in the opener.
There is little doubt that his return to action will certainly be monitored by current Lions chief Warren Gatland ahead of this summer's tour to Australia.
However Croft admits being involved this time around is something he hasn't considered.
"I am not thinking about the Lions," he said. "The Six Nations might not happen for me yet.
"I have got to get myself back playing for Leicester and then England have got a tour in the summer, so that has got to be my aim. I will be working towards that and trying to get my fitness and form back."
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