By Alan Dymock
WITH THE naming of the England squad it became easy to take the return of Tom Croft to international rugby as the headline.
Of course, his comeback from a broken neck is a brave tale of a professional gritting their teeth and inching back into contention whether his body wanted to or not. He willed himself to get back to Twickenham and that must be respected.
Nevertheless, his inclusion speaks of a tactical shift by the coaches for a certain opponent, rather than him being the best contender. Stuart Lancaster will undoubtedly support Croft and his unyielding desire, but this is on-message; he does not want to fully draw attention to his intentions.
The England team may regularly be dragged kicking and screaming into a comparison with the England of 2003 – any glimmer of success makes this unavoidable – but they are wholly different, at least in a sense of set-up.
There is no one England team, churning and smashing everything in front of it like an immovable object that has the same steely, mud-smeared face. No. This England team can rotate and adapt to its environment. So centres can switch in and out, and scrum-halves can be swapped because a boot is needed more than a run or a pass is most important. The opponent is meticulously assessed and a jersey is shared by the squad.
So, while Croft comes in on the bench it is because he can pass balls round players’ heads on the run or he can jump up on the wing to collect a high ball, not because he is seen by Lancaster to be more of an ‘England’ player than anyone else.
He perches on the bench while dynamic ball-carriers Mako Vunipola and James Haskell come in. They are tasked with bursting through Italy and playing around the breakdown. Danny Care is brought in to interest fringe players and provide a different kicking dimension. Tom Youngs never stops offering his services. Croft is in so that a splintered Azzurri can be flicked and galloped past. Freddie Burns can come on to drag defenders in a way different from Toby Flood.
Lancaster will want to bamboozle Italy, and he can offer them big targets coming direct before looking to drag. In a way it is even more simple a tactic than if Wales were the opposition this Sunday. The English want to squash and pull Italy at will.
Some changes are born of necessity. Owen Farrell could play to this tune were he fit. But with Flood it ensures that more defenders need to be interested before Manu Tuilagi and Brad Barritt come tumbling in. England need their new starters to blow out as they traipse around the park. They may just take Italy with them.
The England coaches will not consider losing. Their press work will tell of respect and consideration of Italian talents. However, the England that play on Sunday will be one with a ruthlessness at the core of their outlook. Sentimentality is just an added extra.