Rugby Union: Back not short of necessary: Flanker a home banker as Tigers go hunting

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Leicester. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41

Barbarians. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .23

ANYONE who thinks this Christmas tradition is no more than a frolic should have been at Welford Road yesterday. Yes, the rugby was frolicsome but there were serious points to be made - in particular by Neil Back - as well as 64 to be scored.

Back is the flanker Geoff Cooke, the England manager, has deemed too short at 5ft 10in for his squad. Apparently Laurent Cabannes, the Frenchman who will be on the open side at Twickenham on 16 January, is more than the likes of Back can cope with.

It did not look that way yesterday when the two were in direct conflict. Back's astounding support play throughout a game of bewildering speed and movement confirmed the view of his own coaching director, Tony Russ, that Cooke has it wrong in believing his forwards must be musclemen rather than speedsters. 'Apart from two or three throws at the end of the line-out, in every other area of the game he gave a perfect demonstration of the role of the loose forward under the new laws,' Russ said. 'He showed how you play when the game flows, as it will do more and more under these laws.

'Geoff Cooke goes on about having a big No 7 but that's looking at only one, defensive side of the game. For all the things Neil can't do, there are so many things he can do. We saw much more of Neil Back than we did of Cabannes and, according to Geoff, Cabannes is the reason for Neil's exclusion.'

Russ would say that, wouldn't he, but it has been hard for Leicester folk to accept that their flaxen- haired favourite has been written off at the tender age of 23. Every time Back had the ball, which was often, about 16,399 of the 16,400 capacity crowd (one assumes Cooke's selectorial colleague John Elliott would not have joined in) roared their approval.

They had much more to cheer besides. The Tigers based their victory firstly on solid forward aggression, but it was this less spectacular virtue that enabled them to open up so spectacularly. First, John Liley's kick eluded Gavin Hastings and though Liley then won the chase he knocked on as he went for the ball.

The try was allowed, thereby setting the tone for Jim Fleming's free and easy refereeing when knock- ons and forward passes were as liable to be ignored as spotted. This was carrying the festive spirit a bit far, but it did help ensure the score kept mounting. The ball passed through 13 Tigers before John Wells scored Leicester's second try and another 13 building towards the third, by Rory Underwood.

In the second half, it was not until Richard Cockerill's charge off a line-out had created Darren Garforth's try that the Barbarians pulled themselves into shape. Other than Steve Lloyd, an impressive lock with Welsh and English qualifications, none of the Baa- Baas covered himself in great glory.

The eccentricities of the Lafond brothers tended to create more for Leicester than the Barbarians, though eventually Jean-Marc made his journey from Paris worthwhile by scoring two of his side's four tries. Inevitably, the prelude to the second contained a knock-on and for his try Harvey Thorneycroft was the beneficiary of a forward pass or two.

At the end Hastings, receiving from Craig Chalmers, surged clear from halfway with no knock-on or forward pass in sight, but by then Leicester's handsome win was already assured and the abiding memory was of the interplay involving the Underwoods and Liley which culminated in Tony Underwood's try. There was nothing phoney or forced about it and neither is there about this fixture - not for the Leicester players, anyway - despite the modern predilection for league rugby. 'It is still the club game all our players most want to play in,' Russ said.

Leicester: Tries Liley, Wells, R Underwood, Garforth, Grewcock, T Underwood; Conversions Liley 4; Penalty Liley. Barbarians: Tries J- M Lafond 2, Thorneycroft, Hastings; Penalty Chalmers.

Leicester: J Liley; T Underwood, S Potter, I Bates, R Underwood; J Harris, D Grewcock; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells (capt), D Richards, N Back.

Barbarians: G Hastings (Watsonians, capt); J-M Lafond (Racing Club), J-B Lafond (Begles), L Walker (NSW), H Thorneycroft (Northampton); C Chalmers (Melrose), S Bates (Wasps); M Linnett (Moseley), J Olver (N'hampton), J Probyn (Wasps), S Lloyd (Moseley), D Cronin (Lon Scot), T Rodber (N'hampton), E Peters (Camb Univ), L Cabannes (Racing).

Referee: J Fleming (Edinburgh).

(Photograph omitted)