Rugby Union: Twickenham's final attraction: Back vs Winterbottom: The age-old rivalry of pace and power will be at the heart of an open master-class during rugby union's showpiece. John Hopkins reports

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The Independent Online
TWICKENHAM should be a good place to be on Saturday when Harlequins and Leicester, two teams studded with internationals, compete for the Pilkington Cup. Better still, there will be a master-class in open-side flank-forward play. Leading the way will be Peter Winterbottom, of Harlequins, England and the Lions, perhaps the best in the world, and Neil Back, the Leicester Tiger who might become the best in the world.

Winterbottom's nickname is 'Straw Man', which is hardly appropriate for one who is considered tougher than teak. It refers to the colour of his hair, not his way of life. 'Winters', Dick Best, England's and formerly Harlequins' coach, said, 'is carved out of stone.'

But Back is not exactly a wilting flower. He stands 5ft 10in, weighs 13 1/2 stone and 'is the fittest rugby player I have ever known', Tony Russ, Leicester's director of coaching, said. 'His upper-body strength is remarkable.'

Look at Winterbottom during a lull in play - hands on knees, shoulders lowered, and a glowering stare at the opposition. Pity the man whom Winterbottom will tackle next for he will be hit hard, the ball will bobble loose and someone will pick it up and profit from the destruction that Winterbottom has wrought. Again.

'In my position you're there to make tackles,' Winterbottom said. 'You can't afford to miss any and you can't afford to shirk any. What makes a good tackle is timing.'

He is 33 now and has been making crunching tackles for England since his first cap against Australia in 1982. In those days he could get his arms around an opponent and bring him down but he could not get his hands around a ball and hold it. Down the years he has worked on his handling as much as, if not more than, his fitness, with the result that he has become one of the most complete open-side flankers ever to play the game.

If tackling is Winterbottom's forte, then mobility and speed are Back's. The 24-year-old announced himself with a breathtaking performance for England's Under-21 XV in Bucharest in 1989 in a temperature approaching 100F. He has confirmed his ability again and again, most recently in the semi-final against Northampton, when he was fast enough to keep up with Tony Underwood, accept the winger's pass and then accelerate to score a try.

No less dazzling was a passage of support play in the same game. It began with a scything tackle by Back, which left him on the ground and the ball rolling loose. Leicester swooped, won possession and as the move swept upfield who should join it but the apparently indefatigable Back?

Back was not selected for England's training squad before the championship because he was considered too small, according to Geoff Cooke, England's manager. Back is not the first open-side flanker, nor will he be the last, to be put down because of his size. John Taylor, who at his playing height and weight of 5ft 11in and just over 14 stone was a fair match for Back, went through the same cycles nearly 30 years ago.

Taylor was capped by Wales in five successive games, starting in 1967, before being dropped after a big-is-better policy was introduced. In his place came Tony Gray, who was hardly any taller, and then Denis Hughes, who was significantly bigger.

It took Taylor until 1971, when Wales won their sixth Grand Slam and he was selected for all four Lions Tests in New Zealand, before he felt he had nailed this particular lie.

So Taylor's assessment of Back has particular significance. 'He is a very effective supporter of the ball, perhaps the most effective I have seen all season. His speed and fitness enable him to get to the breakdown, win the ball and then get it away. Under the new ruck / maul law the man who can do that is priceless.'

For all these skills, Back was overlooked by the Lions, who preferred Richard Webster, the Swansea and Wales flanker, for the second open-side position behind Winterbottom. So there is now an even greater urgency to Back's play as he seeks to prove that he is not too small. Cooke now accepts this and has said publicly that Back is Winterbottom's successor.

Watch keenly on Saturday for the buzzing blonds, the England present and England's future. In rugby, everybody, not just gentlemen, prefers blonds - particularly when they play open-side flanker.

(Photographs omitted)

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