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Tom Croft's England comeback ends in defeat
TOM Croft’s return to the England starting line-up did not go as planned as he and his team-mates suffered a 30-3 defeat at the hands of hosts Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
The Basingstoke-born flanker was a replacement in England’s narrow victory over Italy a week earlier but made his first international start in a year against the Welsh.
It marked a remarkable comeback for the 27-year-old, who was out for eight months after breaking his neck last April. He was close to being paralysed but instead made his return for club side Leicester Tigers on January 4.
Croft was immediately recalled to the England squad after being given medical clearance to play every week – but his comeback was not marked with the win England needed to clinch a grand slam.
The visitors went into Saturday’s game in Cardiff having won all four of their previous Six Nations outings, knowing that they would claim the title if they could lose by less than six points.
However, it was not to be, the Welsh claiming the title thanks to a well-deserved victory at the end of a fantastic match.
Croft was brought into the side partly to give England an extra option at the lineout – and he did a good job in that area, winning plenty of good ball for the visitors.
However, it was the Welsh who went ahead after 10 minutes, Leigh Halfpenny kicking a penalty after England were penalised at the breakdown.
Wales were on top and Halfpenny’s second penalty extended the lead before Owen Farrell kicked what proved to be England’s only points of the night, reducing the advantage to 6-3.
The game was being played at a fantastic tempo, with action at both ends, but it was Wales who were more clinical. Halfpenny’s third kick of the day made it 9-3, while Farrell then missed a kickable opportunity.
An interception almost led to the first try of the night for the hosts, Mike Brown producing an excellent tap-tackle to prevent George North racing through, while Wales missed a drop-goal attempt with the final kick of the opening half.
England started to have major problems at the scrum in the early part of the second-half and Wales took full advantage. They worked their way to the England line, piling on the pressure through the forwards, with Croft making some vital tackles, great defence eventually forcing them to settle for a penalty.
However, the breakthrough came on 57 minutes. Having stolen the ball at a ruck, Wales worked it out to winger Alex Cuthbert, who held off Brown to score in the corner, putting the hosts 17-3 ahead.
Farrell then missed another penalty after a high tackle, while Dan Biggar kicked a drop-goal for the home side to make it 20-3.
The lead was extended beyond England’s reach on 66 minutes. Sam Warburton broke from his own half and, while Farrell made the challenge, the ball was kept alive, with flanker Justin Tipurik doing brilliantly before offloading to give Cuthbert his second try of the night.
Biggar’s conversion and a penalty soon after made it 30-3 and that was the final score. England created opportunities in the closing stages but failed to take them, Danny Care’s poor kick wasting one good situation and Brown going on a great run but knocking the ball on when he had men in space outside.
The resulting kick clear found Croft deep – but he then knocked-on before kicking the ball away in disgust to sum up England’s evening.