Rugby Union: Leicester faithful are happy backing Back

Leicester 31 Newcastle 18
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The Independent Online
FORGET THE Aussie cricket betting scandal, and the attempts to pervert events in Sharjah. Rugby now has its own little shocker - namely the scandalous way in which Neil Back has been used by gamblers this season ever since Ladbroke's set up shop in the Welford Road precincts.

The Leicester and England flanker trots out each week, does his bit to keep Leicester at the top of the Allied Dunbar Premiership, scores the odd try - two again this weekend - jogs off to hearty cheers and back- slapping and thinks it is simply fans showing their gratitude for his contribution to the greater cause. But it has been nothing of the sort.

Twice now, against Richmond and now Newcastle, the knowledgeable Leicester rugby public has apparently cleaned out the bookies by putting their money on Back to score the first try at generous odds. Against Richmond, according to reports, it was 10-1; this week he was 12-1 to achieve the feat.

"I was told by a colleague the minute I walked out on to the pitch that I was 12-1 to score the opening try," Back said, adding hastily, "I didn't get anything on because obviously we are not allowed to do that. But a lot of fans are patting me on the back these days and I have now just found out why - it's because they are winning every week."

The way they do it is simple. The fans take a note of the weather and the playing conditions. If is remotely heavy underfoot they know that the Tigers will look to keep it tight, mauling and driving their quarry into the corners and rumbling over from there. On Saturday Newcastle conceded penalties in key positions. Tigers' captain, Martin Johnson, opted for a kick to the corner and in the absence of stand-off Joel Stransky (out for a further two or three weeks), the scrum-half Austin Healey obliged.

The ball is safely gathered at the line-out either by Johnson or Fritz van Heerden, the rest of the pack clicks into drive and a fortunate forward (usually Back) gets his hands on the ball and drops over the line. Two such positions led to Back's tries. "It's getting to a stage where we expect to score from those positions, especially in club rugby," Back said.

But Leicester still looked a little shaky. Back put that down to the last four weeks of disruption with the England calls. "We had a lot of guys coming back from international duty and we haven't been together for a month, so there were always going to be breakdowns in communication."

One of those players was Healey, who plays on the wing for his country, but at scrum-half for his club. "He has all the capability of being the best scrum-half in England," his manager, Dean Richards, said. "He organises the defence well, tackles extremely well, he can pass the ball and his selection of options improves day by day. England have three very good scrum-halves in Matt Dawson, Kyran Bracken and Austin. The other two are probably more manufactured. Austin has this natural ability, which the other two haven't." Healey himself admitted: "I'm stuck between two stones at the moment deciding what to do."

For the time being he will continue the balancing act between scrum- half and the wing. But he appears to have set himself a deadline. "By the time England go on the tour to Australia this summer I will have to make a big effort to go one way or the other."

Leicester: Tries Back 2, Stuart; Conversions Murphy 2; Penalties Murphy 2, Stimpson 2. Newcastle: Tries Legg, Andrew; Conversion Wilkinson; Penalties Wilkinson 2.

Leicester: G Murphy; D Lougheed, S Potter, J Stuart, L Lloyd; P Howard (T Stimpson, 64), A Healey; D Jelley (G Rowntree, 60), R Cockerill (D West, 60), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F Van Heerden, P Gustard, M Corry, N Back.

Newcastle: S Legg; J Naylor, M Shaw, R Andrew (capt), V Tuigamala; J Wilkinson, G Armstrong; G Graham, R Nesdale, M Hurter, G Archer, D Weir, P Walton, R Beattie (S O'Neill, 52-65), R Arnold.

Referee: S Lander (Liverpool).