As you can probably imagine, when we started up Manpilez just seven months ago, it was all about the glitz and glamour, the showbiz parties and jetsetting… Which is why we were a little confused when, on a drizzly Wednesday morning we found ourselves in a run down old football ground on the outskirts of Leicester. The posts were the wrong configuration, there were hoardings for the rental of a Pony and Plough while a small gaggle of Serious Journalists were standing on the other side of the room wondering what two ladies wearing what proved to be inappropriate footwear were doing there.
Thankfully, just as we were starting to worry, Leicester Tigers’ press officer appeared and took us away from all this and into the seventh circle of the Tigers’ lair to meet flanker extraordinaire and all round nice bloke Tom Croft. Though we clearly confused the man from the outset “Man…Piles?!”, he led us into the plusher part of the player’s social area while his team mates were having their lunch to have a chat about his imminent return for Tigers, his take on ‘Ash the Splash’ and his best pal Scampy…
It’s been almost three months since Tom Croft had to duck out of England’s clash with South Africa at Twickenham due to a broken shoulder and on the day we interviewed him we had to be snuck past the Leicester Press “they’re all wanting to know where he is with his injury…” the press officer says as he leads us to where Tom is waiting to be the first person to receive a grilling from us. “Don’t worry” we say “we’re not as serious as all that…”
“So Tom, how’s the shoulder?” We ask, as soon as he’s out of earshot. Thankfully, Tom is amiable enough to let us ask those difficult, hard hitting questions. Once he’s crammed all Six foot 50 inches in to a bar style booth in the Tigers’ ‘snug’ he smiles, knowing full well there was no way he’d get away with it “ It’s going well; I’ve been saying for a few weeks that it’s nearly there. It’s just obviously little things at the end of an injury which hold you back. Touch wood it’s pretty much there now, it’s just a few little things you have to cross the Ts and dot the Is then hopefully be back soon for selection.”
Indeed, it’s looking increasingly likely that this weekend’s clash against troubled Wasps at Welford road could see Tom line up for action alongside returning team mates Martin Castrogiovanni and George Chuter who have been released for the off-week of the Six Nations. It’s clear to see that the 87 times capped flanker is keen to get stuck back in, though he’s equally keen to play this down “It’s been quite frustrating so I’m looking forward to getting back. Obviously at the end of an injury it takes a while to get back in the swing of things, taking the contact and getting your fitness up”.
Leicester Tigers are currently sitting firmly at the top of the Aviva Premiership table with only four losses so far in this year’s competition, so there are few environments better for motivation to return than one that’s so successful. “We’re very inward looking, we look at ourselves and how our standings are affected on the pitch and what we can do to improve ourselves. Leicester historically have always been near the top of the table every single season, we’ve been in the last seven or eight finals in the premiership and we’ve won so many of them. It’s a good place to be, within the squad there’s a lot of competition for places but other teams within the premiership now are playing a lot better and it’s tougher and tougher games each year so we have to improve our skills you know, we can’t just remain stagnant and hope we win because we’re Leicester.”
It’s obvious from the off that Tigers mean a lot to Tom, and he quickly dismisses any hints that he and his pride could ever become complacent with a shrug and a laugh, past successes clearly failing to go to his head. When we turn our questioning to the possibility he’ll return for the Six Nations, that loyalty comes out in waves “Priority is getting back playing for Leicester, Leicester’s your bread and butter, it’s where you learn your skills and where you play majority of your rugby in a season. So I just want to get back playing for Leicester really, try and regain a starting shirt. Obviously the boys are going well who are playing there so I’ve got to work hard off the pitch as well as on the pitch to try and get back in there.”
That’s not to say, however, that he’s not aware of the competition that has bubbled up in his absence, with Tom Wood impressing many in the shirt many had hoped Tom would return in time to occupy “Obviously it’s tough watching other players step into your place when you’re injured. I was there at the Italy game watching from the side line and it’s tough watching them perform exceedingly well as you don’t really see a place for yourself back in that team. But like I say I’m getting back playing for Leicester first, try and regain some form and I’ll go from there”.
Promising words, all told, especially as from that side line, he is rating England’s chances for a long awaited Six Nations win, or even better a Grand Slam with or without him “This is one of our best chances we’ve had in a number of years. We’ve started very, very well. It’s a team that’s been brought up over a number of years but we just haven’t had the success in the Six Nations. I think the team’s come together very well, there are a few new faces and it’s a team that likes to attack, the first two games have shown that, especially the Italian game. Although it was not the best performance by Italy but [they were] still finishing tries and you know the French game coming up will possibly be the decider of the tournament, we could see who goes on to win, so England can’t get complacent with two wins from two. France will offer something completely different; it’ll be a much bigger test”.
As talk turned to England, we took the opportunity to ask who has impressed him so far and it didn’t take long for the man of the moment to come up “Obviously Chris Ashton, scoring as many tries as he has so far is really encouraging”.
A lot has been said about the Northampton Winger over the last two weeks both in terms of his incredible run of points and that signature move, which has sparked many a debate even within the Manpilez Team but Croft takes it on the chin “I don’t see the problem. You know, back in the day Ben Cohen used to do them all the time, nothing was said then. Scoring for England’s a great thing, if that’s how he wants to celebrate then until he drops one… It’s happened in the past in the premiership games, you know, players have dropped the ball but I think as a player you know when the ball’s secure and until he does drop it I’m sure he’ll keep on doing it!”
However, he’s clearly too modest to get into such showmanship himself “I’m pretty renowned at the club for having one of the worst dives. I tend to knee slide or just dot it down, I’m too wary of dropping the ball, I don’t think I’d play again if I dropped it. Just put it down, two hands, that’s it.”
Of the rest of the England squad, he’s even more enthusiastic “Mark Cueto has always been a bit of an unsung hero he hadn’t scored for a while so scoring against Italy you saw the reaction of the team, how much it meant. He makes those hard yards all the time” but naturally, has a special place in his praise for his Leicester team mates, especially the half back pairing that’s impressing anyone with eyes, of Toby Flood: “The way Toby Flood’s controlling the team at the moment is very good, he’s starting to make breaks, open holes for players to go through” and flatmate Ben Youngs “Ben Youngs is Ben Youngs, he does the same as he does every single game; he creates those chances. I think the way Floody and Youngs are working together well as they do for Leicester week in week out”.
“Obviously you want your team mates to do well in the squad. I mean Ben Youngs has risen dramatically over the past year in the ranks and Toby Food has continued his form, so has Dan Cole and Lou Deacs so it’s good to see them doing well but it’ll be good to have them back at the club.”
With the serious bit out of the way, we got onto more…. Manpilez business. Apart from his obvious skills on the pitch, one of the reasons we chose Tom as our first victim was the sheer amount of love he gets from you, our dear readers. We weren’t quite sure how to broach this subject, however, but we can confirm that our timing absolutely sucked as a throng of Tigers drifted over just as we uttered words to the effect of ‘How does it feel to know that all our readers wanted to know if you’re single?’ and discovered that yes, it is definitely possible to make someone that tough blush. And look a bit frightened. “ Uh, yeah, it’s nice but my girlfriend might have something to say about that!” Sorry ladies.
Thankfully, we were able to reassure Tom that neither we nor our readers were just dirty pervs by letting him know just why he was one of the winners of a Manpilez Award. Though his team mates had, by then, boarded the banter bus by chiming in to find out if the award was for ‘Sexiest Man in Leicester’ it was clear to see that Tom was relieved to discover it was the ‘Workhorse award’ for all round performances and though he clearly struggles with an attack of the modest, he was keen to wax lyrical on the kind of players that had inspired that sort of work rate.
“Someone like Lewis Moody I think. Obviously he’s the England captain, and he’s recently moved down to Bath but the way he’s played throughout his career he puts his body on the line, he takes every single call as to whether it’s hopeless or not. The reason why he’s injured a lot of the time is because he does put his body to the extreme and you know that’s the sort of player I’ve tried to take inspiration from. Historically, Someone like [Peter]Winterbottom, who was again, renowned for being… well, a sort of Lewis Moody figure back in the day. I keep referring back to Moods because he is one of those players… [George Chuter happens by] obviously George Chuter’s a bit of a workhorse as well!”
So, with us hoping that inspiration doesn’t extend in to further layoffs for him, we hit tom with the Manpilez Quickfire (read: daft) questions:
With the World Cup approaching, are you already preparing yourself?
Because of my injury the World Cup seems a long way off yet so I’m looking forward to getting my fitness and my form back and I’ll think about that later on!
We’ve heard you were a bit of a mover in the past, would you ever consider getting the sequins out for Strictly or…
[very quickly and definitely] No. I would get far too much abuse being at this sort of camp
Worst room mate… dunno. The one that used to be worst was Seru Rabini who’s left the club now but he used to snore like… I’ve never heard snoring as bad and you’d get no sleep.
Matt Smith, Ben Youngs, someone who’s entertaining.
Have you got any favourite incidents that have happened while you’ve been away?
TC: not that I can really repeat so we’ll skirt over that one!
We don’t really censor at Manpilez…
Probably best leave that there then!
Do you have like a pre match ritual?
Night before always have a carbonara, before a game, Jelly Babies. It’s not really a superstition, just something I’ve got into a routine of doing.
On the subject of Carbonara, we see that you’ve got a dish on the menu at Castro’s restaurant, how did that come about?
Obviously it’s a new restaurant owned by Castro and Geordan, so they just tried to get a few players onto the menu with their favourite dishes, it’s a restaurant owned by rugby players so why not have a bit of Rugby influence?
Are you famous for your carbonara then?
Well… I cook it for a couple of the boys. Geordy’s usually over, obviously Ben Youngs who I live with, a couple of boys come over before a game so it goes down alright
I don’t do a lot of reading I really enjoyed the Da Vinci Code. I like War stories, those sort of things. Currently reading Bill Bryson’s History of Absolutely Everything so that sort of thing. And obviously Harry Potter, how could I forget!?
Either Status Quo, Rockin’ All Over the World or Flogging Molly ‘If I Ever Leave This World Alive’ it’s on the film P.S. I Love You, but it’s a really good song. Really gets the boys going anyway!
What’s been your best tour moment?
Is that something you’d always dreamed of or was it out of the blue?
It’s something you’re always aware of but never expect yourself to go on it. I was 23 at the time so I perceived it as something an older player did, maybe towards the end of their career so I never thought I’d go on it and play three tests. You know, it was just a great experience. It was six weeks of hard work but you were excited all the time and it was a real honour to go play there.
How did you react when you got the call?
It was literally three days before the Heineken Cup final so I didn’t really have much chance to take it in. I was very much focusing on the game against Leinster then I left the next day so it didn’t actually sink in till I was on the flight going over.
Do you keep in touch with the other Lions that were on your tour?
Yeah, obviously Harry Ellis, he’s recently retired but he’s in Leicester and a few of the Irish boys. You end up playing against a few of the players you played with so you catch up with them after games and it’s quite nice have friendships across rugby.
Did you find it quite strange playing alongside you’re used to playing against?
At the start it was weird but everyone was in the same boat it was all ‘My God I’m playing for The Lions!’ There was a great buzz and excitement around the camp so that went to the wayside as the boys were all just happy to be there.
And finally…We’ve been reading up on past interviews and we realised there was no way we could get away with not asking you how your dog is…
I think he actually gets more column inches than I do. Scampy’s very well, he’s sitting in the back of the car at the moment so he seems to pop up in quite a few articles so he’s quite a famous dog now!
Has he been getting involved today?
No, I’ll have my dinner then I’ll take him out on the pitch later, he’ll run around and chase some balls and, yeah, he’s quite a cool little dog. He’s not the biggest dog, he’s quite… a runt really, but he’s good fun doesn’t take too much looking after. He’s going alright!
With that, after a brief expedition onto the rather slippy training pitch to take some pictures, we left Tom alone to deal with lunch, Scampy, the fallout from his team mates from having two girls pitching up to grill him and a small matter of getting back in action…
Tom was grilled by Lauren and snapped by the Manpilez camera & Leicester Tigers.
With thanks to Andy Mann for letting us loose in Leicester.