Croft called up; Farrell blow
England have made the unexpected move of adding Tom Croft to their training squad for Italy, signalling the completion of the Leicester flanker's return from a career-threatening neck injury.
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Just a week after Stuart Lancaster stated that Croft would miss the final two games of the RBS 6 Nations, the head coach revealed he is available to start at Twickenham on Sunday and against Wales six days later.
The 27-year-old led Leicester to victory against Sale on Saturday to negotiate back-to-back matches for the first time in his 295 minutes of rugby this season.
Last April he damaged his neck while tackling Harlequins back row Nick Easter and his comeback, which began in January, has been carefully managed since.
The turning point in his rehabilitation came last week when a visit to the specialist revealed the injury had healed completely, with his superb display against Sale resulting in his arrival at England's Pennyhill Park training camp.
Lancaster, who revealed that fly-half Toby Flood will start against Italy after Owen Farrell failed to recover from a thigh strain, welcomed Croft's return.
"In consultation with the medical teams and (Leicester director of rugby) Richard Cockerill, we've brought him back into the camp. He's here tonight and available for Italy and Wales," Lancaster said
"It was never a selection decision, always a medical one, making sure he's right physically to come back and play at international level.
"One of the key markers was playing back to back games. That box was ticked when he played 80 minutes on the weekend and played outstandingly well.
"As soon as he was available, we definitely wanted to bring him back into camp and make him available for selection.
"It's great to have him back. He's a British and Irish Lion from 2009 and you saw from his performance at the weekend that he's in form."
Croft played all five of last year's Six Nations matches, but missed the summer tour to South Africa and the autumn series.
When fit the blindside flanker is a likely starter and the very real prospect of him adding to his 36 caps over the next 12 days improves his chances of touring Australia with the Lions this summer.
"Tom is one of our most experienced players who has played at the highest level," Lancaster said.
"When we go back to the Six Nations last year he was outstanding and was a key leader as well as player. He brings a lot.
"It was a serious injury that forced him to miss the South Africa tour, the autumn internationals and now three Six Nations games. He's worked extremely hard to get back to fitness and into contention."
While Croft may feature among the 23 selected for the penultimate assignment of England's Grand Slam bid, Farrell's name will be absent when the team is announced on Friday.
Farrell continues to struggle with the thigh problem that brought an early end to his afternoon against France, but his involvement at the Millennium Stadium on March 16 is not in doubt at this stage.
Flood will resume in the number 10 jersey against Italy with Freddie Burns in line to feature on the bench, but number eight Ben Morgan's chances of participating are receding due to his ankle problem.
"Ben and Owen are both unlikely to be available for the game. Ben's still on his return to running program," Lancaster said.
"Owen's still got that quad injury that I want to make sure that has settled down completely.
"You can read into that that Toby Flood will be starting, it's fair to say.
"We're pretty confident that Owen will be fit for next week.
"We still have a decision to make on the bench and we'll make that over the course of the next two days.
"We train tomorrow and Wednesday and we'll decide on the bench from there."
Number eight Billy Vunipola is expected to train this week after recovering from an ankle problem, with Lancaster set to make adjustments to his starting XV.
"There won't be hundreds of changes, we'll keep consistency in selection," he said.
"But clearly we've got two important days coming up. There's a lot of competition in a lot of places. We'll make the final decision on Wednesday."