Former Leicester, England and British & Irish Lions forward Tom Croft says being forced to retire because of injury has been hard to accept.
The 32-year-old won the Premiership title four times with the Tigers and played 40 times for England, but quit the
Croft told BBC East Midlands Today: “It hit me pretty hard and took me a couple of weeks to come to terms with it.
“It was brutal. I drove straight to (see) Ben Youngs and broke down.”
The forward’s last appearance for the Tigers was a 21-14 victory over Ospreys in pre-season, while his final competitive game was a 32-10 win over Saracens in the Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-final in March.
A struggle to take it all in
Croft, who played five Tests for the British & Irish Lions, came through the Leicester Academy and made his debut for the Tigers a week after his 20th birthday.
And accepting he had to retire has been very hard to take.
“It has been literally half my life since I was 16,” he said. “Now I have to get back to the real world and go back home to the list of jobs that have been growing for the past 10 years.
“It is something I have probably buried my head in the sand about for a long time. I probably never thought I needed to retire. It was only when I spoke to Matty (Matt O’Connor), the specialists and the medics that it became apparent.
“Announcing it publicly took me back to square one. Now I am getting used to the fact I won’t be here every day, running out at Welford Road and playing rugby
“You speak to some ex-players and they say it is a bit like a bereavement. It’s a tough one to swallow but my friends, the coaches and players around me make it a lot easier.”
Proud of being a one-club man
Croft enjoyed a glittering club career, winning the Premiership title with Leicester in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2013.
But it was not always plain sailing. The flanker suffered a neck injury in 2012 but returned to action within eight months, while he also missed the 2013-14 season because of a knee injury.
He continued “I am proud of it. I have not stayed at Leicester because it’s the easy option. We have won things and I have been surrounded by world-class players and coaches.
“I always aspired to be a one-club man and I have achieved that. It doesn’t make it easier but I can say I have been a Leicester man since I was 16.
“I have been very lucky to be here for my club career. When I started I was surrounded by recent World Cup winners and they made my life a lot easier. I owe an awful lot to an awful lot of people.”
A wannabe winger
Croft built a reputation as a fine finisher, almost playing as an auxiliary winger at times.
He scored 27 tries for the Tigers, but was quick to play down his own achievements.
“I held my width and when the ball got there I had to do something to justify being there,” he said. “Players around me opened up the space and they probably deserve more of the credit.
“Every single success you have in rugby gives you that special feeling with club, country or Lions. I never took it for granted.”
Now it is time for Croft to look for a new challenge – but has no intention of turning his back on Welford Road for good.
“I am very lucky to have done what I have done for so long but what it makes it better is doing it with who I have done it with. Everything I have experienced has been so much better because the guys I have been surrounded by,” he added.
“I won’t disappear from the club. I won’t be a stranger. It will probably be a case of people asking why I am hanging around.”