Alan Watkins: Back to the future is tall order for one of the little guys

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The Independent Online

Neil Back has never, I confess, been my favourite player of the modern era. Like all open-side flankers of every era, he has lived his life on the verge of legality, judging to the nearest centimetre how far he can go.

Neil Back has never, I confess, been my favourite player of the modern era. Like all open-side flankers of every era, he has lived his life on the verge of legality, judging to the nearest centimetre how far he can go.

I am not, however, thinking primarily of the offside law. In this respect Back is no worse, and may even be slightly more law-abiding, than New Zealand flankers down the ages, or the Scottish back row of the Finlay Calder era. It is more Back's niggling and petty attitude that I have in mind.

He is not a generous player. If he can get away with something, get away with it he will. His disruption of Peter Stringer's put-in at the end of the Heineken Cup in 2002 is a case in point.

The referee was unsighted. The loss of the scrum, within sight of Leicester's line, arguably cost Munster the cup. What was most surprising about the episode, to me at any rate, was not so much that Back tried it on or even that he got away with it. It was, rather, that his conduct was defended afterwards by people who should have known better on the shaky basis that in the circumstances anyone else would have done the same. Some went so far as to say that his action was "professional'' and accordingly worthy of the highest praise.

No one that I read at the time defended Back's action immediately after the end of the Pilkington Cup final in 1996. On that occasion he pushed the referee, Steve Lander, to the ground after Lander had awarded Bath a penalty try in the closing seconds of the game, so giving Bath the victory over Leicester. The furthest anyone was prepared to go by way of defence was that Back had been disappointed and was frustrated and had acted in the heat of the moment.

He was awarded a six-month suspension. As the incident occurred in May, this amounted effectively to a rather shorter period of inactivity. I would have punished him with greater severity. In my opinion he was lucky to be allowed to enjoy his subsequent period of success on the field. But then, if I were a rugby administrator (which - thank the Lord - I'm not, sir) and had anything to do with discipline, I would make Judge Jeffreys look like a founder-member of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

At the same time I have a certain admiration, even a soft spot, for Back. I first saw him play brilliantly for Leicester against Harlequins at The Stoop. This was well before he won the first of his England caps in 1994. But he did not prosper immediately in the national side. The then manager, Geoff Cooke, gave his opinion that Back was "too small", adding, perhaps unnecessarily, that it was "not his fault, poor lad".

Back was then 5ft 9in. He has since grown to 5ft 10in. Jason Leonard has made an identical progression, virtually unknown previously in men in their late twenties. But it is notorious that modern players, especially forwards, exaggerate both their height and their weight.

Whatever Back's exact size, Cooke's successor, Jack Rowell, showed no greater disposition to give him a proper chance in the national side. Rowell had something of a fetish about tall men in the back row, several times playing three No 8s with Ben Clarke - a natural No 8 if ever there was one - pushed on to the open side.

It would have been easy, at that stage, for Back to relinquish his England ambitions. No one could have blamed him in the least if he had done so. But he showed determination and courage; he worked hard, and his virtues - for this is what they are - were duly rewarded by Clive Woodward, who showed Back and the rest of us that there was still some justice in the world.

Then Back proceeded to win - or was an outstanding member of teams that won - every available honour: Pilkington Cup, Heineken Cup, Premiership title, Grand Slam and, finally, World Cup. And now he is told by Woodward that he is surplus to England's requirements.

Perhaps he ought to have retired from international rugby with his colleague Martin Johnson. There are, by the way, stories of dark deeds at the Welford Crossroads involving Back, Johnson and the departing Leicester manager, Dean Richards, of which I say nothing further at this stage because I do not know what the truth is. And it may be that Back will find his rugby future in coaching or management.

It is equally possible that Woodward will have to invite him to return to the squad. There are those who maintain that Richard Hill's best position is No 7, where he will presumably play in Rome on Sunday. But players of Back's type are now rare. And maybe his greatest contribution to the game is to show small boys that there is still a future in rugby for a normal-sized member of the human race.