Rugby Union: Back makes the big time: England reshaped

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The Independent Online
IN THE end the choice was made for them when Tim Rodber's hamstring gave way again. Without Rodber and Dean Richards, England's selectors can no longer exclude Neil Back, chosen yesterday to make his debut against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday.

However it was arrived at, the flaxen-haired flanker's selection is creative and attacking: Back to basics, as it were. Now the onus is on Back to prove that sizeism in rugby - the current predilection for gigantic forwards, not least in the back row - is a mistaken philosophy.

At 5ft 10in, Back has unavoidable limitations as a line-out forward, but the continuity his uncanny positional and support play will give the England back line will more than compensate. Even Geoff Cooke, the England manager, finally appears to have been persuaded. 'Neil has had a long wait,' Cooke said as England trained at Twickenham yesterday. 'He is confident, knows what he's good at, and his continuity skills can help because we're under-achieving outside the scrum.'

Absolutely right, as Leicester, the Midlands, England A and B and even the England captain himself would readily testify. 'Will Carling said I deserved my chance and I think so, too,' Back said. 'I couldn't be in better shape for this international.'

He began the season as Peter Winterbottom's heir-apparent, only to lose out to the big battalions - Rodber, Richards and Clarke - when the team played New Zealand two months ago. After that, not everyone was as sanguine as Back, who said yesterday: 'I never doubted my chance would come.'

His introduction is among three changes from the side who beat the All Blacks. Richards's dislocated elbow and now Rodber's torn hamstring entail a reshaped back row in which Ben Clarke moves from open side to No 8, with the Bath captain, John Hall, thoroughly meriting a return on the blind side more than three years after his 20th cap and 10 years and a day after winning his first, coincidentally at Murrayfield.

Martin Bayfield's heartening recovery from a neck injury would have brought the 6ft 10in lock's return whatever Nigel Redman's state of fitness. In fact Redman has had injury troubles of his own but is deemed fit enough to represent England A against Italy in Piacenza on the day of the Scotland match.

Redman was surprised to find out his fitness was considered adequate for the As but not the seniors, and he could be excused further puzzlement once he discovered that one comeback match for Bristol was sufficient for Kyran Bracken to retain his place at scrum-half. Until Saturday, Bracken had not played since Jamie Joseph stamped on his ankle at Twickenham.

Otherwise the selection was as straightforward as could be, given that Jeremy Guscott remains among the walking wounded. Changes of longer-term significance take place on the bench, where the elevation of Mike Catt and Steve Ojomoh is a reminder of England's enviable strength in depth.

ENGLAND (v Scotland, Murrayfield, 5 February): J Callard (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), K Bracken (Bristol); J Leonard, B Moore (Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), M Bayfield (Northampton), J Hall, B Clarke (Bath), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: M Catt, S Barnes (Bath), D Morris (Orrell), G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe, S Ojomoh (Bath).

England A team, Sporting

Digest, page 31

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