Rugby Union: Back up for new model flanker role: Deemed too small to be of use by the England selectors Neil Back finds his size no obstacle to success. Steve Bale weighs him up

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NEIL BACK has such a reputation as a fitness fanatic and rugby obsessive that to hear him talk groaningly about training is to realise that a human heart beats inside that honed-to-perfection frame. On one precious day of the week he does not train: 'It's where we get the term 'Thank God for Friday'.'

Even so, this is the player - Leicester, England A and future England open-side wing forward - who has been at or near the top of every squad fitness test he has ever taken, whose sustained contribution to a match is probably higher than that of anyone else in English rugby.

And he is also the player whose international potential the England management have so often questioned that the fact that, all of a sudden, he is the official heir-apparent to Peter Winterbottom is like a Tory government saying the poll-tax is unworkable.

OK, so these things do happen and now Geoff Cooke has, so to speak, put his Back up. He was widely supported for a Lions place on the tour to New Zealand, where he was an overwhelming success on last year's England B tour, but instead has to make do with going with England to Canada.

The All Blacks will anyway not long be delayed. Other things being equal, this 24-year-old insurance clerk expects to make his England debut against them at Twickenham in November.

Today, when Leicester meet Northampton at Welford Road before a capacity crowd and live television audience, Back has an unsurpassable opportunity, short of playing for England, to prove again that he is big enough to fill Winterbottom's boots. On the other hand, with even Cooke, the England manager, now supposedly convinced, perhaps the flaxen-haired flanker no longer needs to.

Still, he is constantly reminded - not least by Cooke, of which more anon - that at 5ft 10in and 13st 7lb he is on the small side. To which Back has this considered response: 'For the game I play my size is a massive advantage in that a bigger guy would have to be extremely agile to get up and down and make all the tackles that I get through during a game.

'I just cannot see why this should place a question-mark against my ability to perform at international level. You're either good enough or you aren't, and if you're good enough you're big enough.' Now he is officially both, but as recently as December he was officially deemed not to be the latter and so, unavoidably, not the former.

Thus, when Back was omitted from England's Lanzarote training squad, Cooke expressed the management's revisionist theory of open-side play which effectively dispensed with rapier pace and ball-handling dexterity in favour of bludgeoning strength. The 6ft 2in, 15st 2lb Steve Ojomoh, a successful blind side or No 8 with Bath and the old B team, was the prototype of the new model flanker. He and Back will be in competition in Canada.

'Our belief is the role of the open-side flanker is changing,' the manager said at the time. 'The line-out is becoming important and you have to have the ability to be dynamic in carrying the ball forward in congested areas. That's why we are looking differently at the traditional image of the open-side flanker in this country. We are looking to break the mould and Steve could possibly be an answer.'

Alas for Back, 5ft 10in was not seen as any kind of answer. 'We have to be honest and say we have serious doubts about whether that can work against the world's best. The lad can't help his size. It's just unfortunate for him: we don't see him as the No 1 alternative to Winterbottom at the moment.'

Nor for a while thereafter, not until England's A team selectors had to give Ojomoh a run at open side with unconvincing results. In his analysis on Back, Cooke had been careful to add, 'That doesn't mean he won't play for England,' and lo and behold, by the time of Winterbottom's England retirement last month Cooke was claiming he had been taken out of context. The former reject had gained reacceptance.

'I was disappointed initially but then I thought there's nothing I can do except prove them wrong,' Back said - which makes him sound more philosophical than he really was. 'If England were playing tomorrow and Peter wasn't playing, I would expect to play. That is what I've been told would be the case.'

This is a vindication even if neither Back nor his coaching director at Leicester, Tony Russ, will say so. 'I just feel pleased that Neil showed such a commendable attitude, didn't take his bat and ball home, and has consistently played to a standard that has changed the selectors' minds,' Russ said.

'Mind you, I still feel that if they had a bigger chap they would pick him rather than Neil. I don't think the selectors are totally convinced, but he's earned their respect and the right to have first go. I don't think the Ojomoh experiment is going to work: the role of open-side flanker is as specialist as any in the game, just as much as hooker or scrum-half.' Naturally enough, Back wholeheartedly concurs. 'I'd like to think I'm the ideal open side for England,' he said. 'If you have seven other forwards who can do the muscular stuff, you can have a quicker, skilful, footballing-type open side. That's how I see myself.'

If Cooke had wanted evidence in support of his one-time sizeist contention, it came with Adriaan Richter's short-range try for South Africa against England B in November when he barged through Back's ineffective tackle. But the tackler has been asked about this incident so often that he has his answer ready.

'This thing about tackling is a load of rubbish: from one yard out no one would stop me either.' He contends that he is every bit as effective as the Ojomohs and Richters of the world in making and taking big hits: 'Just ask the opposition who've been tackled by me . . . they'll tell you how hard my tackling is. And 99 per cent of the times I take the ball into contact it comes out our side.'

Returning from a painful shoulder injury, he can make the point as he makes and takes the hits today against a strapping Northampton back row built along the lines Cooke had in mind at Christmastime. In its way it is as critical a game for Back as it is for Leicester but, never mind the massive occasion, his performance will be no different from those he delivers week-in, week-out.

'Whether it be an international, a league game or cup game, or even a friendly, I approach it exactly the same. I give 100 per cent - and no more, because that would be impossible.' No, not even Neil Back, rugby's perpetual-motion man, can fulfil the sporting cliche by giving 110 per cent.

(Photograph omitted)

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