Rugby Union: Back buoyed by tribulation

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The Independent Online
SINCE that mop of flaxen hair blazed on to the scene for England Colts, Neil Back has had his vital statistics as well as opponents against him. This week the misgivings reached their height, so to speak, when he was dropped from the England squad.

As Geoff Cooke, the manager, has as good as said that the Leicester flanker will not play for England no matter what he does, Back could be excused for viewing this afternoon's decisive Divisional Championship match at Welford Road as an exercise in futility.

But instead he intends exploiting his tribulations. So when Back runs out for the Midlands against the South-West, his aim will be to ram Cooke's words back down his throat harder than a Peter Winterbottom tackle. 'Now I will be trying that bit harder, though I don't really think I can improve on the 100 per cent I've always given,' Back said.

Thank goodness for a sportsman who realises that it is impossible to give 110, let alone 200, per cent. Back, 23, is out of the squad for new year training in Lanzarote because his 5ft 10in and 13st 10lb do not match up to the 6-2 and 15-2 which have persuaded Cooke that Steve Ojomoh, hitherto a blind side or No 8, should be Winterbottom's open-side heir-apparent.

As it happens, the South-West have Andy Robinson, a flanker more in the Back than Winterbottom mould, on their open side - and Ojomoh on the bench. With this selection, they have already beaten the North and London and so will win the ADT trophy by beating, or even drawing with, the Midlands.

Back has been angrily defended this week by Tony Russ, Leicester's coaching director, who made the reasonable point that, if the England selectors felt this way, why take Back on the B tour to New Zealand last summer? Even so, remembering the way Adriaan Richter scored a try for South Africa against England B by ploughing straight through Back's head- on tackle, Cooke too has a point.

'I just hope the manager will change his mind about my contribution,' Back added. 'I don't feel I have anything to prove in rugby-playing terms and I can't alter my physical dimensions. If eyes are focused on me a bit more because of the recent disappointing news, maybe I'll benefit.'

The South-West will be without their match-winner against London, Jon Webb, the England full- back having gone to Switzerland on medical business after delaying his departure in order to play last Saturday. Jonathan Callard, his deputy at Bath, also deputises for the division, and the South-West stick with Darren Crompton in place of their injured tight-head prop John Mallett even though Crompton is normally a loose head and Victor Ubogu, the current England tight head, is a replacement.

This is a good example of the autonomy of divisional selection which is frequently a frustration to Cooke, whose England selection means he would much rather see Ubogu and Ojomoh playing. On the other hand Will Carling's absence from the London team despite being back from his Far East holiday probably does not bother Cooke in the least.

The South-West's discovery, for the first time, of team spirit and consequently winning ways mean that the best the rest can hope for is to overtake them on points difference. Even if the Midlands win, it is more or less unthinkable that they could do so by enough, but London have a better chance of a bonanza at the Stoop. 'We must at least aim to overcome the North by 20 points; it's well within our capabilities,' Tony Jorden, the London coach, said.

In Wales the renamed Swalec Cup is at the fourth round today. Cardiff, who play Maesteg in the only all-First Division tie, will rest their Wales full-back, Mike Rayer, after his admirable performances for Wales and the Barbarians against Australia. As Alex Evans, Cardiff's coaching director, put it yesterday: 'Mike is whacked.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- DIVISIONAL LINE-UPS ----------------------------------------------------------------- At Leicester MIDLANDS: J Liley (Leicester); F Packman (Northampton), S Potter, I Bates (Leicester), H Thorneycroft (Northampton); R Angell (Coventry), M Dawson (Northampton); M Linnett (Moseley), J Olver (Northampton), D Garforth, M Johnson (Leicester), S Lloyd (Moseley), P Shillingford (Moseley), D Richards (capt), N Back (Leicester). SOUTH-WEST: J Callard (Bath); N Beal (Northampton), J Guscott, P de Glanville (Bath), S Morris (Gloucester); S Barnes (capt), R Hill (Bath); C Clark (Swansea), K Dunn (Wasps), D Crompton, N Redman (Bath), A Blackmore (Bristol), J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson (Bath). Referee: F Howard (St Helens). At the Stoop Memorial Ground LONDON: A Buzza; S Pilgrim, F Clough (Wasps), D Hopley (Cambridge University), D O'Leary (Saracens); R Andrew (capt), S Bates (Wasps); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), A Snow, R Langhorn (Harlequins), M Skinner (Blackheath), D Ryan (Wasps), J Cassell (Saracens). NORTH: I Hunter (Northampton); T Underwood (Leicester), K Simms (Liverpool St Helens, capt), J Fletcher (Tynedale), R Underwood (Leicester); P Grayson (Waterloo), D Morris; M Hynes (Orrell), S Mitchell (West Hartlepool), M Whitcombe, D Baldwin (Sale), K Westgarth (W Hartlepool), M Greenwood (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), A Brown (W Hartlepool). Referee: J Dume (Bordeaux). -----------------------------------------------------------------

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