Rugby Union: Back to a familiar problem

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The Independent Online
RUGBY is full of unlucky players. Many of them are unlucky with injuries. The most recent example is Ian Hunter, who, after an already injury-strewn career, has had to cry off the England tour of South Africa. David Pears has a similar history. Before him there was Nigel Melville. The illustrations could be multiplied.

But there is another species of bad luck. It is embodied today by Neil Back. He too is injured, as it happens (a broken thumb still in plaster). But his misfortunes do not arrive from any propensity to get hurt. They derive from his size. More specifically - for weight can, up to a point, be increased or diminished - from his height, an alleged 5ft 10in, though it has always looked more like 5ft 9in to me.

Last season the then England manager, Geoff Cooke, said it was not the player's fault, but he was simply not big enough for international rugby. Naturally Back was sad but did not give up. Several commentators protested. Then Cooke relented - or said he had been misunderstood. Omitted from the England team who beat New Zealand, Back was included in the side for the opening two matches of the Five Nations' Championship.

Against Ireland, he was virtually anonymous. Against Scotland, he had a better game but still failed to impose himself upon it as he had on other games while playing for Leicester, the Barbarians or subsidiary English sides. Those who had previously championed his cause shook their heads and said that, painful though it was to admit it, Cooke may have been right after all.

Against France and Wales, Ben Clarke, a No 8 for Bath, was restored to the No 7 position he had occupied against the All Blacks. He had two fine games, and says he enjoys his new England position. He is to tour South Africa, with Lawrence Dallaglio, of Wasps, as his deputy.

Back is not in the party at all. Cast down once, he has been briefly exalted and cast down again. No wonder he is miserable. Ten days ago, when Bath played Leicester in the league, he was due to participate in Radio Leicester's live commentary on the match. Shortly beforehand, he informed the broadcasters that he would not be travelling to Bath after all. He was fed up.

Last week, he made it known that he would not be getting himself fit either for the cup final against Bath. This led to some adverse comment, both in the city and outside. If Back had done much for Leicester, Leicester had done more for Back. It was not as if he had the chance of appearing in a cup final at Twickenham every day. And, on the other side of the scrum, there was John Wells: arguably as good a flanker as Back in his way but without a single full cap to his name, turning out loyally for the club Saturday after Saturday.

More recent reports, however, imply that Back has changed his mind. Provided the thumb has mended (he hopes to have it out of plaster a week before the final), he intends to be fit enough to be chosen for Twickenham.

Still, in the longer term I doubt whether Back will choose to stay in rugby's highest regions. It has been seriously suggested that he should become a hooker. But it is not everyone who likes to spend half his life with his nose 18 inches off the ground, and the other half being abused by his colleagues in the pack for not getting his throw-in right.

It has also been suggested that he might turn himself into a scrum-half. But to play in this position full time is different from deputising, as Back has occasionally done admirably.

The Back problem is not merely personal but fundamental to rugby. For there is a type of player who is not large but has speed and stamina, tackling power, the ability to give and take a pass, rugby sense and, above all, courage. But he lacks the speed of a wing, the elusiveness of a centre, the kicking skills of a full-back or outside-half.

Such players included Mick Doyle, Jim McCarthy, Haydn Morgan, Graham Mourie, Jean-Pierre Rives and John Taylor. Peter Winterbottom (who has always seemed to me to be no taller than Taylor) might be grouped with them. It would be a shame if 18- year-olds of this kind were now to be lost to the game.