RFU imposes six-month ban on Back

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Though he protested to the end that he had mistaken his victim's identity, Neil Back yesterday incurred a six-month suspension from the Rugby Football Union for pushing the referee at the end of Leicester's highly charged Pilkington Cup final defeat by Bath.

The ban is not what it seems, since the six months include the close season and leaves the 27-year-old recent England flanker free to play again from 4 November, always supposing Leicester are still under the auspices of the RFU at that time.

As well as the beginning of next season, Back will have to miss summer benefit matches in aid of Max Brito, the Ivory Coast player paralysed during last year's World Cup, and Philippe Sella, who is leaving France to play for Saracens. He will also be ineligible to make the Barbarians' tour of Japan or Leicester's pre-season visit to South Africa if it takes place.

The real total is more like 10 weeks, a lenient sentence for such a blatant breaking of one of rugby's taboos. Nevertheless, Back's club yesterday professed their disappointment at its "severity" and said they would consider an appeal after receiving the decision of the RFU disciplinary panel. Last week Back agreed a contract with Leicester.

Things have come a long way from the immediate post-match period when both the RFU media liaison man, Colin Herridge, and referees' officer, Steve Griffiths, were frantically trying to play it down. On the contrary, the hearing found that Back had pushed Steve Lander - an incontrovertible conclusion in view of the video evidence - and "was therefore guilty of conduct which was prejudicial to the interests of the game".

The incident occurred within minutes of the hotly disputed penalty try for persistent offences which had effectively handed the cup to Bath. But at the time Back said that, far from taking out his disappointment on the referee, he had thought he was pushing Andy Robinson, his Bath opposite number.

This was accepted by the panel - made up of three RFU committee members, Bob Rogers, Peter Trunkfield and the former England No 8 Bob Taylor - making it hard to know what he has been punished for. "The panel believed Neil Back was telling the truth in his evidence and at no time doubted his honesty and integrity," the RFU stated.

Back has never varied in his account that it was only when Dean Richards, the Leicester captain, informed him in the Twickenham dressing-room that he found out what he had done.

"I didn't realise the game had ended," he said. "I ran in to join the other forwards and believed I was giving Robinson - offside again - a push to clear the way. When Dean told me I had pushed the referee I went into his room and apologised."

In fact, Back is shown by the video to have been standing alongside Lander when he blew the final whistle.