Back brings hard edge to Grand Slam quest

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The Independent Online

It is entirely appropriate that Neil Back should have plenty on his mind, given his status as the conscience, as well as the motivator-in-chief, of the most potent England team of the post-war era.

It is entirely appropriate that Neil Back should have plenty on his mind, given his status as the conscience, as well as the motivator-in-chief, of the most potent England team of the post-war era.

To be precise, he is grappling with 240 minutes of calamitous rugby at Wembley Stadium, Murrayfield and Lansdowne Road between the spring of 1999 and the autumn of 2001 – three matches that the red rose army let slip away (quite literally in the case of the storm-force encounter in Edinburgh), leaving them in an emotional cul-de-sac from which there is only one exit: via victory in Dublin on Sunday.

In public forum in the super-swish, £240-a-night, country club surroundings of the England base near Bagshot, the Leicester flanker swatted aside inquiries about the psychological impact of Grand Slams lost as though he were dealing with some over-matched, wet- behind-the-ears rival at the bottom of a ruck.

"Those failures were long ago; they occurred in a different time and happened to a different team," he said. "Why not look at the good news, the 30 victories from 34 games since the last World Cup? No other international side can boast that record. It's why we are ranked No 1."

This is part of the 34-year-old occasional captain's uncommonly influential role in the current England set-up: to accentuate the positives; to emphasise the strengths of an outstanding team blessed with most, if not all, the talents; to create and nurture a can-do spirit among a group of hardened professionals who are happy to look up to him, albeit while peering down on his 5ft 9in frame. When Back speaks, in his brass-tacks East Midlands tone, everyone listens. Yes, even Matthew Dawson. Even Austin Healey, when he is around.

But the disappointments of the recent past do prey on his mind, not least because he is one of five of this weekend's side – Dawson, Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Leonard and Richard Hill are the others – who started all three of those infernal fixtures against the Celts.

As Back readily admitted yesterday, he would have delivered the "different time, different team" speech after each of those setbacks, if only for public consumption. However, he senses a harder edge to English attitudes on this occasion. Nine years after winning his first cap in a Five Nations scrap with Scotland, he can finally smell a Slam in the air.

"Why is it different this time? Look at what this group of players achieved in the autumn and you have your answer," he said. "We faced three massive challenges in three weeks – the All Blacks, the Wallabies and the Springboks – and we came through. We have matured together, put together a recent record that is great by anyone's standards and built up our confidence as a result. I've been really impressed by the laid-back atmosphere in training this week, given the scale of the occasion on Sunday. The weather has made things easier, of course – lovely fast going, the ball whizzing through the hands nicely – but there is more to it than that. Everyone involved, from the management and senior players right down to the guys with the fewest caps, are genuinely relaxed about the job in hand.

Generally speaking, Back does not "do" relaxed. As one of the principal figures in match preparation, he has been known to delay a session because colleagues have not been in what he considers to be the optimum frame of mind. "I don't mind you cracking jokes and having a laugh, but we're not going near that training pitch until you've finished," is his standard line. On the other hand, not everyone can operate at his level of intensity while retaining the all-important splinter of ice in the veins. Back understands the importance of his youngers and lessers avoiding the worst excesses of the big-match brouhaha.

"There is no getting away from the fact that this is a massive game," he admitted. "But then, we identified this as where we wanted to be right back at the start of the season. I said in September that I regarded this as our Grand Slam season, despite the extreme effort involved in winning all five matches in seven weeks. If we want to show the best of ourselves at the World Cup this autumn, this is precisely the kind of occasion we need to handle."

Unusually well rested after a tour-less summer last year and injury breaks either side of Christmas, Back is perfectly set for a third World Cup campaign. Indeed, he is enjoying his rugby so much that he may have a celebratory drink of something alcoholic if things go well this weekend. Often described as as "virtual teetotaller" (which is contradictory in the grand tradition of "a little bit pregnant"), Back does indulge. But not often. He is too single-minded to spend his weekends on the razzle.

"I'm as competitive as I ever was," he confirmed. "More so these days, because there are so many good players around. If I don't perform every time I set foot on the field, I run the risk of being out on my ear. There again, I've taken that view ever since I started playing this game . . . when I was six."

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