England v Italy, March 10
Lancaster challenges Croft to impress
ESPN Staff
March 5, 2013
England's Tom Croft beats Ireland's Donncha O'Callaghan to a lineout ball, England v Ireland, Six Nations, Twickenham, England, March 17, 2012
Tom Croft could be back in action for England on Sunday © Getty Images

England's Stuart Lancaster has challenged Tom Croft to prove to him that he is worthy of a place in the squad for Sunday's Six Nations clash against Italy.

Croft last turned out for England during the 2012 championship and has spent a lengthy spell on the sidelines after he suffered a serious neck injury towards the end of the 2011-12 season. But he was called back into the international mix on Monday and he could face Italy on Sunday.

The 27-year-old flanker's comeback began in tentative fashion in January and he was expected to miss the entire championship, but Lancaster is prepared to give Croft his chance to impress.

"The desire to get Tom back into the squad is to give him a chance to put his hand up for selection against Italy and Wales," Lancaster said. "That's the priority for me - getting our best team on the field for the last two games of the Six Nations. He's got to prove in the next couple of days that he's back up to speed in our system, but he's a good player and I'm sure he'll do that.

"The only time I've worked with him was in last year's Six Nations and from my experience he was a great defender and carried the ball well. In the set-piece he was excellent. He was a very good offensive and defensive lineout option, and good at re-starts too."

Croft damaged his neck last April while tackling Harlequins back row Nick Easter and his comeback 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 on Saturday resulting in his 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 he's in form."

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