London - When Tom Croft made his comeback for Leicester last Friday, nine months after breaking his neck, it was an occasion he had feared would never come - having learned how close he came to being paralysed.
The 27-year-old Tigers, England and Lions flanker suffered his horrendous injury last April while attempting to tackle Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter in an Premiership encounter at The Stoop.
At first, he and his club assumed he had merely suffered another shoulder injury and the initial diagnosis suggested it was no real cause for alarm. But within days, the full extent of the damage had become apparent. Then, after Croft had undergone emergency surgery to insert all manner of metalwork into his neck, he discovered that he had only narrowly avoided being consigned to a wheelchair.
Speaking about the episode on Tuesday, four days after his return to action at Worcester, he admitted that the shock left him wondering whether resuming his rugby career was sensible.
“After I’d had the operation I went back to see the specialist and he said how close I’d actually come to something severe,” he said. “It was a fractured vertebrae at C6 in three different places - a broken neck, coming as close as you can to being paralysed without it actually happening. When the specialist told me that, it really hit home and I started to think, ‘Is this the right thing to be doing?’.”
Recounting the incident which led to the traumatic events, Croft was at pains to emphasise his own blame in what amounted to an unfortunate accident. He even explained how he has used what happened to him as a cautionary tale for junior players.
“There was a scrum on our line, we got wheeled slightly and I shot out too far,” he said. “Nick Easter cut back inside and I tried to cut back, but I got my head caught against the left side of my chest. Nick’s quite fat - well, he’s quite a sizeable chap isn’t he? I just got my head forced down.
“It was a total technique failure on my part, so if I go and see kids at youth level and they ask, ‘What is the most important thing?’, I now always say, ‘Getting those basics right’. It is hugely important.
“The initial diagnosis was that everything was fine. But there were a lot of spasms and a couple of days later I found out the severity of the injury. With rugby players, you can have a lot of muscle guarding your neck so you can have an injury and not really know about it.
“As soon as we realised how serious it was, I was in surgery the next day. There was a bit of ‘crazy-paving’ up there so the surgeon realigned everything, stuck in a plate, a bit of bone off my hip, four screws and a few other bits. I think there’s a cage in there somewhere too. He seemed happy with it the next day. Since then, I have set off an airport scanner, so I just showed them my scar!”
The process of recovering from the surgery was as much a psychological challenge as a physical one. Having endured such a horrific injury and being informed how narrowly he avoided paralysis, Croft needed time to come to terms with the punishing demands of his job. A carefully structured fitness programme at Leicester allowed him to push aside any mental demons.
“In late September I had done little bits with the bag and gently running into a contact shield,” he said. “Normally you have your head up but I was protecting myself by bringing my shoulders up. Slowly, I got more and more confident, but there was still a one or two per cent doubt in the back of my mind before the Worcester game. The only way to cure that was by playing.”
One vital tool in Croft’s rehabilitation, both in terms of physical well-being and soothing any lingering doubts, was adding bulk to his body. Working closely with the Tigers support staff, he sought to put on weight almost as a layer of armour.
One upshot of that effort is that his director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, jokingly concedes that his athletic blindside actually resembles a rugby player.
“I dropped five kilos in a week post-op,” said Croft. “I was keen to get that back on because I was looking exceptionally ill after that. For my whole career here, Cockers has called me skinny and weak. I had eight months to do something about that. I needed to put weight on and get that bit more robust.
“Instead of going out and looking skinny, I’ll look a bit bigger-set than usual, which gives me a bit more confidence when I go into contact, it’s a psychological benefit.”
From now, his return to a playing peak of fitness and form will be cautiously managed. Having started at Worcester, Croft won’t be in Leicester’s XV for the trip to Ospreys on Sunday. Likewise, he will be in the England squad named today ahead of the Six Nations but he will be eased back into Test duty only when the time is absolutely right. After the scare he has endured, being patient at this stage is bearable.
“I just want to get out on the pitch again, but with this injury you’ve just got to let it heal, or I will be under the knife again,’ he said. Cockers, the medics and the physios are in charge. I’ve just got to get the lungs going, get back to match fitness and go from there.” - Daily Mail