Rugby Union Commentary: The battling Back going big on bulk

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LEICESTER'S hot pursuit of Bath goes on - sustained by the 21-9 defeat of Bristol at Welford Road - and, far more interesting than a miserably mundane match, so does Neil Back's pursuit of an England place.

So what's new? Answer: the most mobile flanker in the land will even change his entire, already ascetic lifestyle to win the cap that was denied him when the England selectors went for bulk to beat the All Blacks.

The history of 16 days ago records that it worked, so now Back, too, is going for bulk to try to beat the England selectors at their own version of the game. He can do nothing about his 5ft 10in but he means to add up to 10lb to his 13st 10lb by the time England play Scotland on 5 March.

If this sounds unnatural and possibly unhealthy, Back insists he is doing it on the best of advice. Five meals a day instead of three, 6,000 calories instead of 3,000, natural-fat instead of no-fat foods, two additional sessions of intensive weight- training weekly: all with the intention of making bigger and better the areas in which the England management consider him worst.

Eventually perhaps the bulked- up Back will bang people back in the tackle and carry the ball like a Tim Rodber. 'I'm changing my focus with the intention of keeping my strengths - speed and mobility - and building up my strength and power,' he said. 'If it can add another dimension, it will improve my game.' Or perhaps not: Rodber, after all, is 6ft 6in and 16st 7lb.

The new regime started last Monday and, though Back said he felt different on Saturday, it was not discernible. For now he looks and does the same, is invariably and uncannily first to the loose ball whether advancing or retreating, has hands as creative and dextrous as the best threequarter, kicks as well as a half-back and above all is endowed with the most precious attribute of all: pace.

All these, and especially the last, he could be putting at risk. Back would beg to differ but acknowledges that his outstanding - in fact, scarcely credible - consistency may suffer. 'It's not done in five minutes; it's done with a lot of preparation; it's geared like an athlete trying to peak for a particular event,' he said.

'As far as England are concerned, there is no more proving to do; I'm either going to be picked or not. But this is going to affect my week-to-week performances. I haven't specifically worked on legs before because I've had to have fresh legs for each game. Having worked on my legs during the week, I entered the Bristol game not feeling as fresh as I would have done previously.'

No one would ever have known. Back gave Leicester more continuity than they deserved, given the excessive conservatism of their rugby. This is a club, and a team, who thrive on something far more liberal than wasting sterling forward work by banging away up the middle. It comes to something when the Tigers, of all people, progress furthest through the route-one route march of the rolling maul.

One such, a 15-yard effort that nearly brought a try, was followed more or less immediately by another that was swiftly halted by Tony Spreadbury's whistle. 'He blew up because he was bored,' one stalwart former Tiger muttered. It gave Jez Harris the fourth of his seven penalties, equalling Les Cusworth's (not, remarkably, Dusty Hare) club record against Harlequins in 1979 and David Pears's Courage Championship best for Quins against Rosslyn Park two years ago.

Harris was taking the kicks only because John Liley was absent injured but, with Wayne Kilford giving the Tigers useful attacking options in Liley's full-back place, the responsibility could well remain with the long-serving stand-off, who has spent most of his career as a faithful second-teamer.

'It's a little bit of glory,' he said, and if anyone deserves glory as reward for loyalty it is Harris. He does not practise his place-kicking and neither, on this occasion, did he miss whereas Mark Tainton's success-rate for Bristol was three from five and he failed with a drop- shot, too.

The visitors, now only two places above the relegation area, were initially devoid of possession in the absence of the injured Andy Blackmore and so quite unable to exploit a gale that abated to a gentle breeze by the time Leicester had its advantage.

Still, Bristol were never more than six points behind until the last quarter-hour and if they had had more men with either the dogged courage of their estimable captain, Derek Eves, or the speed of David John, the game might not finally have slipped away.

It was not the stuff of champions from Leicester - and they knew it. 'The frustration in the changing-room is immense,' Ian Smith, their coach, said. 'It was a good result but the way it was achieved was far from satisfactory. We expect to play the sort of rugby synonymous with Leicester over the years.'

This is as big an ambition as Back's - which is, literally, a big ambition. It seems only yesterday that he was insisting his modest stature was essential to the way he played his rugby. No longer, not even if his fellow-Tigers like him just the way he is.

'The England management have to ask themselves what kind of game they want to play,' Smith said. 'If I were in a position to pick the England team he would be one of the first names on the paper, because he plays the sort of football we like to play at Leicester and I'd like to see England play.'

A coach of Leicester would say that, wouldn't he? But, special pleading aside, as a fine old flanker himself Smith is something of an expert. 'If you play the game like Neil Back, you don't have to convince anyone of anything,' he added. Except it now seems Neil Back has to convince himself.

Leicester: Penalties Harris 7. Bristol: Penalties Tainton 3.

Leicester: W Kilford; S Hackney, R Underwood, S Potter, T Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson, M Poole, J Wells, D Richards (capt), N Back.

Bristol: P Hull; D John, A Saverimutto, R Knibbs, S Crossland; M Tainton, M Newall; A Sharp, M Regan, D Hinkins, P Adams, S Shaw, J Pearson, R Armstrong, D Eves (capt).

Referee: A Spreadbury (Bath).

(Photograph omitted)