Back aches to reclaim his future

Paul Trow finds a six-month ban has not distracted an eye-catching blond
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The Independent Online
Neil Back did not really want to begin his career as a full- time rugby player with a six-month sabbatical but, as it happens, it may even have helped him.

In one injudicious moment at Twickenham in May, after the last-minute penalty try which handed the Pilkington Cup to Bath, Back shoved the referee Steve Lander. Despite the official's reluctance to take the matter further, higher authorities intervened and Back was banned for six months.

Now, as he prepares to return to the Tigers' first team on Wednesday night at Neath, Back could be forgiven for wondering how he will ever fit rugby back into his life. "Since the ban started, I've got engaged and bought a new house in Coventry. I've done rugby workshops at schools all over the country for charity, and I'm studying for my financial planning exams," he said. "I'm not saying I'm pleased about having six months off, but I've tried to look at things positively and get the most out of it. Going round schools helped enormously. I found it very refreshing and the kids' enthusiasm has kept me going.

"Players don't get a long enough break from the game, and everyone can benefit from taking time off from playing rugby. It's given me time to reflect, and prepare. Whereas my team-mates had a 12-week build- up to the season, mine has been 20 weeks.

"I gave up my job as a pensions supervisor in August and now I spread my training over the morning and afternoon instead of cramming it into a 14-hour working day."

The Leicester first team is Back's immediate objective, but whether the blond flanker, who is 28 in January, can add to his sparse collection of five England caps is another matter.

"My immediate goal is to play for Leicester. I'm not even thinking of England or next summer's Lions tour of South Africa because too much is beyond my control, like luck. But I would like to make the England squad for the World Cup Sevens in Hong Kong next March."

Only the fastest and fittest can survive in Sevens these days, but Back, a superb natural athlete, claims: "I'm as fit as I've ever been. I've been fully involved in all the team's preparations even though I've missed 15 matches. The lads are a little fatigued now, so I think they'll be pleased to see me back."

No doubt Back will be pleased as well. "To be honest, I don't enjoy watching. I've only been to two games this season because it's too frustrating. Last summer, I went on tour to Ghana and the Ivory Coast to raise funds for Max Brito who was paralysed during the 1995 World Cup, but I couldn't play and had to watch from the stand. I ended up on the touchline dying to get on.

"I can't wait to play again. The new law requiring scrums to keep binding until the ball is out benefits faster, sharper back-row forwards like me. When the boys are playing, I have my own training sessions. I try to simulate match conditions and do 60 lengths of the pitch - sprinting, jogging, walking, with lots of squat thrusts thrown in."

While he ploughs this lonely furrow, does he mull over the incident which led to his suspension? "It was a spontaneous reaction. I pushed out in frustration. I look at it on the video now and it makes me cringe. It certainly looks worse than it was. It's a blot on my record." On Wednesday, Back will start to set that record straight.