Rugby Union: Neil Back's England career has seen him feted, dropped, ignored, recalled, hero-worshipped, cast aside, and misunderstood. And today he's coming back for more...

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The Independent Online
Neil Back squares up to the Springboks at Twickenham this afternoon having spent most of his career proving himself.

Chris Hewett talks to a natural-born fighter who may have finally found a sympathetic home for his unique talents.

These are dangerous waters and Neil Back knows it. It was almost exactly two years ago that South Africa, newly crowned as world champions, swaggered into Twickenham, kicked England's collective backside until the red rose turned red raw and made such an unholy mess of Andy Robinson's long-awaited return to the Test arena that the Bath flanker was back among the has- beens before he could say Nelson Mandela.

Robinson later admitted, albeit through gritted teeth, that he had never felt so helpless on a rugby pitch. There were any number of reasons for his obvious discomfort - picked by Jack Rowell to play the role of a human catalyst, a link-man working in tandem with his outside half and centres, it took England precisely 38 minutes to give him the ball - but to the "Big is Beautiful" brigade, the problem was as plain as the bloodied nose on Robbo's face. He had been overmatched. Ruben Kruger, his opposite number, was five inches taller and three stones heavier. End of story.

Today, the Springboks come armed with an even more imposing physical specimen in the breakaway position. Andre Venter, the fast and fiery Free Stater whose notorious mean streak frequently leaves him on the wrong side of disciplinary tracks, is quite something: 6ft 5in of attitude and 17 stones of strop. Where does that leave Back and his Robboesque dimensions? In extremely bullish mood, that's where.

"I don't think the Springboks are any more physical than anyone else; certainly, I didn't feel alarmed or threatened by their size or strength during the Lions tour back in the summer. I've had this size thing around my neck for as long as I can remember but quite honestly, it doesn't even register any more.

"We're all more powerful and more dynamic - it's inevitable in a professional environment - and as far as I'm cocerned, the old `bigger they are, the harder they fall' adage is more true today than ever before.

"Look, they don't come much bigger and stronger than Lomu, do they? Watch the tape of the Emerging England-New Zeal- and game at Huddersfield and you'll see little old me driving him backwards. To my mind, Christian Cullen is a more difficult defensive proposition. At first sight, there's nothing to him. But he steps out of more tackles than anyone I've ever seen. Don't make the mistake of thinking size is everything."

Even so, the issue of size, or lack of it, has given Back more grief than the back rows of the world combined since he first revealed his penchant for perpetual motion with a virtuoso display for England Under-21s in Romania eight years ago. In no particular order, he has been feted, dropped, ignored, recalled, hero-worshipped, cast aside, mishandled and misunderstood. He has been on the canvas more times than Frank Bruno and spent longer in the cold than Captain Oates. If top-level sport is a roller-coaster experience, Back should be sponsored by Alton Towers.

"There have been plenty of low points, I suppose, and the lowest of the low was that Springbok match in '95. I'd played in the first three World Cup games that summer before picking up a hamstring and even though I was disappointed at missing the rest of the tournament, I felt I was well and truly in business at England level. When the Boks arrived and Jack Rowell said he was looking to play a genuine open-side, I thought: `It's got to be me because I'm the only one in the squad.' Then Robbo turned up out of the blue on the Wednesday night and played on the Saturday. That really hurt.

"There were flat times last season, too, especially when the Lions selectors announced their initial squad of 62 last season and my name wasn't there. I was convinced my chance had gone, so you can imagine how I felt when they picked me in the 36 to travel. I was lying in bed when Alison, my fiancee, came in with the mail. When I realised they'd chosen me, I cried my eyes out. Honestly. The tears were streaming down my face. That's how much it meant to me."

Back returned from the tour feeling seven feet tall and with good reason. After years of being overlooked, often without a word of explanation, in favour of Peter Winterbottom, Ben Clarke, Steve Ojomoh, Robinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and, latterly, Richard Hill of Saracens, he had produced his finest rugby on the grand stage for coaches who genuinely valued the skills and commitment he brought to the cause. "It was wonderful to start the final Test In Jo'burg, but the midweek game against Free State in Bloemfontein was just as big a high," he says. "I've never been involved in better rugby than the stuff we produced that night."

Happily, the good vibes remain very much in evidence, even though the new England coaching panel gave Hill the nod for the first two legs of the current four-match SANZA series. "I wanted to play, of course, but I can handle disappointments when the coach is being up front with me and I know where I stand," said Back, earnestly.

"This management set-up has it absolutely right in my view. They're leaving no stone unturned in attempting to maximise our chances of winning the next World Cup. They're pulling in specialist expertise in every conceivable area and they're doing things professionally. Yes, I was a bit down about not starting against Australia, but Clive Woodward gave me his reasons and made me feel part of what was going on. There was no lingering downside, no sense of things happening behind my back.

"As it turns out, I'm playing alongside Richard and Lawrence against the South Africans and I happen to think that we can achieve a great deal as a unit. We're all footballers with decent hands, but we're all grafters, too, willing to get down there among the studs and win some 50-50 ball. We're comfortable in possession and comfortable with each other, so the Boks can be as big as they like, can't they?"