Rugby Union: Title party a suitable case for Back

The Tigers' little big man is determined to savour the moment when he gets his claws on the title. By Alex Hayes
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The Independent Online
THE LAST time Leicester lifted the first division title was on the eve of the 1995 World Cup. The Rugby Football Union, no doubt anxious to prevent their internationals from getting injured before the tournament, had therefore decided to restrict all the England players to 25 competitive matches that season. As a result, on the day the Tigers secured the league title against Bristol, their key elements were sitting in the stands in their jackets and ties, unable to participate in the team's triumph.

Once again, as Leicester look set to regain the trophy, this is a World Cup year. But come 3pm today, and in sharp contrast to four seasons ago, the Tigers will be fielding their strongest available side when they face Newcastle at Kingston Park. It is an occasion Neil Back is relishing. "To be honest," says the Leicester and England open-side flanker, "four years ago was a massive anti-climax. After the game, all our players were celebrating on the pitch and having their photograph taken with the trophy, while us England lads just stood there looking on from the side."

Today, Leicester need Back at the heart of the action. Especially as their form has been patchy of late. "We haven't been playing particularly well," he admits. "But I think that now we can see the winning line, we are giving it our all again. Against Sale last week [Leicester won 41-17] we played as well as we have all season."

Back puts his side's indifferent performances in March down to international commitments. "The high number of games has meant that we have had to rely heavily on our squad, which has thankfully been good enough to help us pull through. It is only really now that the international campaign is out of the way that we have been able to set our sights firmly on the club front for the first time."

Not all teams have Leicester's strength in depth, however. The advent of professional rugby has put a huge strain on a number of clubs, stretching their financial and playing resources to the limit. But the game's brave new era has also created a far more competitive league, one which Back believes is harder than ever to win. "It's much tougher these days. There used to be only two or three teams in it, but the league is far more open now.

"In the past, there were games which you just had to turn up at to win, but that's no longer the case. West Hartlepool may be bottom of the league, but they are potentially a very good side and score lots of tries."

Recent campaigns may have been less predictable than their predecessors, but Leicester have had the look of champions for some time. As the former Bath and England fly-half Stuart Barnes remarked: "When Leicester's form dipped, they hung on and kept on winning. That is the sign of a true champion." Back agrees, although he attributes much of the Tigers' success over the past 12 months to the new management trio of John Wells, Dean Richards and Joel Stransky.

"Bob Dwyer [sacked at the end of last season] brought us into the professional era," explains Back. "He had to make a lot of changes and actually had a decent record at the club. But I think the present coaches have been successful because they carry so much respect from all the players. Also, their man-management skills are excellent. They are always available, 24 hours a day, if you need advice. That has been invaluable for the younger players and has helped us develop a strong team spirit and family atmosphere."

Back, very much the little "big brother" of that family, has enjoyed an exceptional couple of years. He was a member of the triumphant Lions' tour to South Africa two summers ago, is an ever-present force in the title-chasing Leicester pack and, in the words of his international coach Clive Woodward, "is the first name on the England team-sheet". Not bad for a player who has only recently achieved international recognition.

"To win the championship and be involved in the Five Nations tournament has meant that this has been a massive season for me," he acknowledges. But Back is equally keen to praise his managers. "I've always been confident in my own ability. Now that I've got the backing of senior coaches both with the club and Club England, I'm the happiest I've ever been. And a happy man makes a happy player."

There should be few sorrowful moments today. For while success in this autumn's World Cup in Wales remains the obvious long-term goal, Back's immediate target is getting a result against Newcastle. And even though Rob Andrew's men have lost only once at Kingston Park in 38 games, few would bet against Leicester bringing that impressive run to an end. "We don't just want to win the title," says Back ominously. "We want to finish in style, and with as many points as possible."

Their closest rivals, North-ampton, have done all they could to prevent Leicester running away with the league. But, should the Tigers realise the inevitable this afternoon, one man in particular will be relishing the celebrations. And this time, there is no jacket required.