Rugby Union / Five Nations Countdown: No holding Back the fighting fit flanker: England's good little 'un has finally beaten the good big 'uns. Barrie Fairall reports

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The Independent Online
ONE thing sports pages are never short of are imaginative headlines concerning Neil Back. He is a sub-editor's dream, but the rather prosaic one reading 'Back makes the big time' said it all because the flaxen-haired flanker's dreams are about to be realised. In short, the 5ft 10in Back enters the international arena against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday at a time when giants roam the rugby world.

And pretty upset Back must have been at times, not least when the England manager appeared to write him off as back-row material at the highest level, where height is the preoccupation. Geoff Cooke, though, has always appreciated the player's skills, and injuries to Dean Richards and Tim Rodber meant that Back could no longer be denied.

Cheers all round and not least at Leicester, who have long felt that a cap was fitting for the fittest and fastest flanker around. Not that Back has been idle awaiting the call. On the contrary. While there was nothing he could do to increase his stature, there will be a beefier Back in the English pack to face the Scots.

Back set himself a target after his hopes of being chosen against the All Blacks late last November were dashed. But he did square up to the tourists when they tackled the Barbarians the following week. 'When I was selected for the Baa-Baas I decided right, that's it. They're either going to pick me for the first game of the Five Nations or they're not, so I've got 12 weeks in which to train as an international player and peak for an event.

The 25-year-old says he has trained five days a week for as long as he can remember and that routine does not include what he gets up to at his Coventry home, where the loft has been converted to a fully-equipped gymnasium. 'But I wanted to change my focus slightly in specific areas.' This is typical Back, whose non-stop activities make others blanch.

'My aim was to put on 8 to 10lbs in lean mass. My body fat at the start of the programme was 9 per cent. It's now 10 per cent, but I've actually put on 12lbs.' Then, with a note of pride in his voice: 'I've been put through the pain barrier by my personal fitness adviser and now there's a lot of lean mass there.'

Does he feel any better for this punishment? 'I'm a lot more confident - if I could ever be more confident. I feel a lot fitter, stronger, more powerful than ever before.' Awesome is the word that springs to mind when you hear him talk, but then the Tiger is only human after all. 'The big worry was that the routine might have affected my speed, but that hasn't been the case.

'The only difference is I haven't entered my games as fresh as previously because I've been training that much harder. It's meant that I've played some games for Leicester when I've not been 100 per cent. In other words, I've gone in with heavy legs. No one, though, has said it's affected my form.'

Quite the reverse, in fact. Back has just got bigger and better. 'I think I'm playing very well at the moment. As an amateur player, I couldn't be in any finer shape quite frankly. So the preparation is there and I've just got to do it on Saturday now. And I'm sure I will.'

The pensions supervisor from AXA Equity and Law matched against what have recently become very amicable Scottish selections. 'Unfortunately, Dean Richards won't be there. I always hoped that I would make my debut with him but it's not to be, though I've got great confidence in the team and the players around me.'

What is a problem is finding match tickets for all the family 'We get three tickets. My parents and girlfriend will be there, but finding tickets for my two brothers is proving difficult.' Their absence would be a pity. Gary is a back-row forward who almost made the England Colts, while Ian is a hairdresser.

'It's a bit of a laugh. really. I couldn't be a skinhead because my head would look like a road map with all the scars I've got up there. But Ian's a stylist and I leave it to him.' Then again, those flaxen locks have become something of a trademark, as much as they were for the Frenchman Jean-Pierre Rives, one of Back's heroes.

The others? Peter Winterbottom, Andy Robinson and Michael Jones. 'And I learned a lot from Gary Rees,' who Back had the chance to study at close range in his two seasons with Nottingham. Before that it was Barkers' Butts, the Coventry

juniors. No ifs and buts about it, though. Against the Scots: 'I'll be doing a bit of damage,' Back said, the sort of positive remark one has come to expect from a positively outstanding English back-row forward.

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