August 22 2002
Neil Back – “A tremendous servant of Leicester, England and the British Lions and his would be the one of the first names down on any team sheet I wrote.” (Martin Johnson)
Neil Antony Back
Appearances: 257 + 10 (correct on 15/08/2002)
Weight: 14st (88Kg)
Height: 5' 10" (1.78m)
Date of Birth: 16/01/1969
Previous Clubs: Barker’s Butts, Nottingham
Honours: Lions 4 caps, England 50 caps, England Schools, England U18s, England 21s, England As, and Barbarians.
Neil Back was born in Coventry in 1969, has two brothers Ian and Gary, and is immensely proud of his working-class background. His dad Keith was a paint technician at Rover in Coventry, and his mum Vanessa a secretary at the sprawling car plant. Neil started out in mini-rugby at Earlsdon RFC, before moving on to play for his school, The Woodlands Comprehensive in Coventry.
At school Neil was very much an all-round athlete. He played basketball at representative level; was in the Coventry City high diving team; claims to have been good enough to have become a professional cricketer if he had wanted; threw the discus and javelin, and ran 1500m on the track in around 4min 40 second. In addition to playing rugby on a Saturday, he played football on a Sunday. When he was 13 he was invited to attend the Coventry Schools trials in both soccer and rugby, and opted for rugby. As they say the rest is history.
Neil joined Barkers Butts, a good local junior club side that has produced many other quality players including Leon Lloyd and Danny Grewcock. Whilst there, he was first selected for England schools. He says that this opened his eyes to the class system within rugby, with most of the other guys in the England side coming from public schools. He recalls that after scoring a try against Wales he was dropped from the next game in favour of a lad with a double-barrelled name, allegedly following a behind-the-scenes deal. He says that the best thing about the professional game has been the eradication of this type of thing from rugby.
After two or three years Neil moved onto Nottingham RFU, who were then a powerful force in English rugby, having players such as Rob Andrew, Brian Moore, and the England No 7, Gary Rees. Whilst at Nottingham, Neil made his England U21 debut, against Romania in May 1989, scoring a hat-trick of tries. However, after two years of playing second fiddle to Gary Rees at Nottingham, Neil was tempted by an offer to move to the Tigers.
Ian ‘Dosser’ Smith was retiring, and Tony Russ, the England U21 manager who was taking over at Leicester as first XV coach assured Neil that he would be in the first-team from day one. Neil attended a Tigers match as a spectator, stood on the concrete terracing alongside 15,000 Leicester fans, and immediately made his mind up to accept. He says that the atmosphere was fantastic and the chance to play alongside Dean Richards and John Wells was too good to miss.
Neil made his Tigers debut against Bedford on 1st September 1990, quickly followed by his debut for the Barbarians. He was an instant hit with the fans, and his name has been synonymous with the successes of the Tigers over the past twelve years. He is only the third forward in the Club’s history to score a 100 tries in first team games, has been involved with two Lions tours (97 & 01), two World Cups (95 & 99), and has captained England. In 1998 Neil was RFU Player of the Year, and in 1999 was named Players’ Player of the Year. However in many ways Neil’s story is one of success against the odds.
It is easy to forget that in the early 90s Neil found himself sixth choice in the England pecking order behind Peter Winterbottom, Gary Rees, Andy Robinson, Ben Clarke and Steve Ojomoh, after the then England Manager Geoff Cooke described him as “too small to make it in senior rugby”. He became increasingly frustrated by his failure to establish himself in the England side, and only after embarking on a new training regime designed to increase his weight by a stone, was Neil at last selected to play for England, against Scotland on 5th February 1994. One game later he was dropped, and didn’t play for Cooke again.
Things didn’t pick up much when Jack Rowell took over as England Manager. Selected for the first three England games in the 1995 World Cup, Neil scored his first International try in the last of these, against Western Samoa, pulled his hamstring and was never picked by Rowell again. He wasn’t even picked for the England A side, and seriously considered retiring from rugby and taking up karate.
Neil Back has also never been far from controversy during his career. In particular he has admitted that he is now utterly ashamed of what happened on May 4th 1996. Tigers were at Twickenham for a cup final against arch rivals Bath. The score was 15-9 in Leicester’s favour with five minutes to go, when Steve Lander awarded a hotly disputed penalty try to Bath. Score now 15-16. Despite relentless pressure from Tigers, they couldn’t score from the kick-off, and the whistle for full-time blew for a Bath victory.
In Backs words “a red mist descended and the next thing I knew, Lander was lying winded on the turf. I had just pushed out at the nearest person to me – I actually thought it was Andy Robinson – and unfortunately it happened to be the referee.”
After a media frenzy and an RFU inquiry Neil became the first professional player to be found guilt of bringing the game into disrepute, and given a 6 months ban, although the RFU committee accepted that his actions had not been premeditated. Funnily enough, this was to prove the big turning point in Neil’s International career and aspirations.
On his return after serving his ban, Neil was fitter, stronger, more mature, and hungry to make amends. Ian McGeechan, the British Lions coach, picked Back for the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa, despite his continued failure to get into the England squad, and he was capped as a replacement in the second Lions test, and kept his place for the third test. He has since followed this up with 2 more Lions caps on the 2001 tour to Australia.
Clive Woodward took over as England manager after the Lions tour in 1997, and Neil has been a regular member of the England side ever since, gaining a further 45 England caps to add to the 5 he had achieved during the Cooke and Rowell regimes. With 50 caps, Neil is now closing in on Peter Winterbottom’s record of 58 openside caps for England, something that would have seemed unconceivable after the 96 cup final. He just needs to keep going until the World Cup, and hold off the challenge of Lewis Moody!
Clive Woodward has also given Neil the opportunity to captain England four times, against Australia, Romania, Wales and Italy, and he has led a winning side on each occasion. Neil has also occasionally captained Tigers, leading them to 12 victories in 16 games as captain.
True to form, Neil managed to end last season in controversial style in the Heineken Cup Final against Munster. As Neil has said “Munster had a vital last-ditch scrum under our posts but lost possession when my hand, shall we say, dislodged the ball from their scrum-half Peter Stringer’s grip at the put-in. It was, I admit, an infringement but was not spotted by the referee………That was a crucial scrum and I did what I had to do.”
That incident sums up Neil Back – a driving desire to win, and to do whatever it takes to be a winner. This tends to lead to a polarization of views about Backy – from devotion from Tigers and England fans, to sneaking admiration from fellow Pros, to downright loathing from some opposition fans.
So what does the future hold for Neil?
“I will carry on for Leicester, probably for another season, perhaps two, and then hang up my playing boots for good. I like the idea of coaching and I think I will have something to offer in that department.
A gorgeous wife (Alison), a lovely daughter (Olivia), with another baby on the way, two European crowns and 50 or more England caps – and England captain. How much better could it get anyway?” (Neil Back, Size Doesn’t Matter, 2002)
Well Neil, three European crowns, five successive premierships, and a World Cup would be nice!