Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Leicester's Lions #2: Neil Back

Leicester's Lions No.2: Neil Back

Neil Back
Even at a club with a long and glorious history like ours being selected for multiple Lions tours is still a special achievement.  The names drip off the tongue Wheeler, Woodward, Richards, Underwood, Corry and more are a litany of legends.  But only two men have been on a third tour.  They stand head and shoulders above the other giants of the club.  Back and Johnson. 

Neil Back played 338 times for Leicester and ended his career as one of the most decorated players in English rugby history.  5 League triumphs, 2 European titles, 2 domestic cups, top try scorer in the history of league rugby, 66 caps for England, a grandslam, two more Six Nations championships, a World Cup, 5 caps for the Lions, a winning Lions tour.

Short sighted England coaches Geoff Cooke and Jack Rowell continually snubbed Back during the early 1990’s due only to his build, preferring the outsized Steve Ojomoh, Ben Clarke and at one stage even Tim Rodber.  The Lander incident in 1996, though he only missed 13 matches, left him further than ever from the international scene.

But the Lions helped change all that.  In those days the home nations’ coaches would put forward the names they thought were good enough for selection, 62 were entered for the 1997 tour to South Africa but Rowell had not included Back.  However tour manager Fran Cotton and coaches Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer had other ideas; Back was on the plane. 

It’s hard to imagine now but Back was considered a massive gamble and was a sure fire “dirt tracker” by many, he proved them wrong though by playing 8 games including the last two tests.  In the second test it was Back’s turnover that led to Wood hacking forward and Guscott being able to slot the winning drop goal.

With Woodward now in charge Back was a fixture of the England back row missing only 8 of the next 70 test matches up to the 2003 World Cup final.  Back captained England on 4 occasions winning them all. 

Back’s second Lions tour was not quite the success as the first as he was hampered with a rib injury which ruled him out of the first test.  The Lions lost the two test matches he featured in but they were both close run things with Back scoring a first half try in the 2nd test to go into the break 11-6 up.  The second half fight back by the Wallabies has gone down in history as they surged past the Lions to win 35-14.  The third test didn’t go the Lions way as Justin Harrison, who earlier on the tour Austin Healey had described  as a plod, a plank and an ape, rose on the last play to paw the ball back on his side from  a Lions attacking lineout and seal the victory for Australia.  On his debut too.  Git.

Of course just before that crushing low Back and his Tigers team mates had experienced the ultimate high.  Paris.  A try scorer in the second half come back before Healey set up Lloyd for the stunning finale.  Need I say more?

Tigers had secured their 3rd successive league title back in March after romping away from the competition and sealed the inaugural Play Off final (just an end of season jolly then rather than the title decider) against Bath the week before the Parisian dream.  2002 saw the Premiership and Heineken Cup retained, with Tigers matching Bath’s record of 4 successive titles and becoming the first side to retain a European title.  Back’s “hand” in the 2002 victory is massively over played as Tigers were by far the better side that day and Munster could have played for another hour without scoring a try.

Back’s greatest honour though was won in Sydney on 22nd November 2003.  Neil Back played the whole 100 minutes as England, led by fellow Tiger Martin Johnson, beat Australia to become World Champions for, so far, the only time.  

Back was on the winning side in 31 of his last 33 England caps, a remarkable record and testament to both his greatness and that of his teammates.

He had one final international to play though.  His stunning form for Tigers as they topped the table in 2005 saw Back selected to tackle the All Blacks and go on the 2005 Lions tour alongside 7 of his Leicester teammates.  This selection tied Back with his greatest friend Martin Johnson on 3 Lions tours apiece.  

Controversy, though, dogged Back as he was suspended for the first 4 weeks of the tour after a fracas with Joe Worsley in the opening stages of the 2005 Premiership final defeat to Wasps.   Despite playing just one provincial game Back was selected for the first test, becoming the oldest ever player to represent the Lions in a test match; the 21-3 defeat was as near to the All Blacks as the Lions got and Tigers teammate and protégé Lewis Moody was the openside for the final two tests. 

Back’s final ever game of rugby was in a Lions jersey against Manawatu, he came off the bench and scored a try as he finished his career 16 years and 457 games after his Nottingham debut.

Since retiring Back has moved into coaching; first as an assistant at Tigers where he was part of Pat Howard’s backroom staff that guided the club to an historic double in 2007.  A year later he took over Leeds and guided them to promotion at the first attempt, then retained their Premiership status for one year before cruelly being relegated on the last day of the 2010/11 season on points difference from Newcastle.  Back dropped 5 divisions to lead the ill-fated Rugby revolution, as backer Michael Aland’s promised funds never materialised, however he did notch another promotion before the wheels fell off.  This year he worked under Michael Bradley at Edinburgh but was unable to bring his winning touch north of the border.

Back will always be remembered as one of the true greats of Leicester, England and the Lions who overcame early setbacks, some self inflicted most not, to win it all.  

Leicester's Lions #1: George Beamish, click here to read more 

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