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Croft created template for devastating forwards

There are legions of great names in rugby, but there are only a small number of genuine game-changers.

The Tig would volunteer the names of Dusty Hare, Peter Wheeler, Neil Back, and Freddie Tuilagi and Manu Tuilagi as genuine game-changers. There will be others, but they’ll do for a start.

There are many genuinely great players, legends if you will, who have played at the peak of the game, won everything going and set standards for those who followed. But they were perhaps ‘just’ better at their role than anyone else. To be a game-changer, you have to add something more.

Hare perfected goalkicking football-style, rather than the heavy-booted toe-end kickers who largely preceded him; Back became a benchmark flanker, linking attack and defence, stealing or slowing ball in an almost clinical manner that his predecessors, many of them so much bigger and therefore slower, could not.

Freddie Tuilagi blazed a trail for not only Pacific Islanders but also rugby leaguers, while his youngest brother Manu remains unique in his skillset and physicality in a Tigers shirt.

Wheeler was a genuine modern footballing forward with such all-round skills he could probably have played anywhere, though he still also had everything that forwards of his era, or any other for that matter, would wish for.

In game-changer terms, The Tig would throw the name of Tom Croft in there as worthy company for any or all of them.

Croft announced his retirement this week, but his contribution – and the style of it – will form a significant part of memories of the last 10 years in English, European and world rugby.

He burst on to the scene with a startling try for England Saxons against New Zealand Maori at Twickenham in the Churchill Cup, beating outside backs for pace and finishing in the style of any top wing. He was about 20 years old, raw and blessed with dazzling pace.

He had to grow – literally in a physical sense – into the role of a blindside flanker and get through the gritty parts of the game as well as showing the other parts of his game. But Croft undoubtedly brought an X-factor to a decade of service as a Tiger, England regular and a two-time Lion. Who could forget the two tries in the first Test in South Africa?

To produce those finishing skills against a typically robust and physical Boks side is perhaps the greatest example of his work, but we all have a catalogue of memories of the twinkle-toed flanker in a Tigers shirt.

If you want a prime snippet of Croft in a Tigers shirt, how about the try from 60 metres against Quins at Welford Road when he appears to put the foot on the gas at least twice in outstripping the opposition?

Go well Tom, it’s been an absolute pleasure.