DUBAI // Tom Croft, the hugely gifted back-row forward, may not have been an automatic selection for Ian McGeechan's squad to South Africa, but his former coach and mentor, Neil Back, believes the 23-year-old could emerge as the stand-out player of the tour. No-one was more surprised than the former England flanker, a veteran of three British & Irish Lions tours and former Leicester Tigers man, when Croft was left out of McGeechan's initial 37-man squad.
But Croft, who has been in irresistible form for Leicester this season, earned a reprieve when Alan Quinlan was ruled out through suspension for gouging. In fact, Croft is now vying with Joe Worsley to wear the No 6 shirt for the first Test against South Africa on Saturday, quite a turnaround for a player who thought he would have spent the last week playing for England against Argentina. "It was a surprise to me that Tom was left out, but I think I can understand it," said the Leeds head coach prior to a training session with Arabian Gulf RFU's youth and women's sides at The Sevens.
"Looking from the outside I think they went for a grizzly, physical pack and Tom is a tremendous athlete, but the potential area he's got to improve is his physicality over the ball as a back runner. "In my time at Leicester I spent time helping him in that area and he's definitely improved and he's continued to do that with the coaches there." Croft may have some work to do on his skills at the breakdown, but Back, who raised funds for the Wooden Spoon charity and the Leeds Rugby Foundation Community while in Dubai, believes his astonishing speed could pose problems for the Springboks.
Despite measuring a towering 6ft 6in, Croft was second in Leicester's speed charts only to Tom Varndell, the England Sevens flier who has now joined Wasps. "He's electrically quick and would be a match for most backs in world rugby, even the very fastest," said Back. "The way the game is played in South Africa and the fast tracks you play on, Tom's speed and his ability in a line-out would certainly have put him in my 22 if not my starting 15.
"The fact is he's there now and his performances have justified that selection. We don't know who will be chosen for the Tests, but I think his athletic ability will be a key factor." Back, who won 66 caps and was part of England's World Cup win, predicts a lucrative contract for Croft on his return to the UK. "He's stood out for a number of years but what I like about Tom is that his wage hasn't been particularly high for a while but he's never moaned or worried about that," said Back.
"He is very receptive to help and constructive criticism. He's going to benefit now and will secure a big contract because he's an international player. I think he can be one of the stand-out players on the tour." Should he be selected for Saturday's match in Durban, Croft will go head to head with the world champions' celebrated back-row of Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Pierre Spies. "They are great athletes and pride themselves on that position but then the Lions have got quality back rows too," said Back.