Back winds up Leeds for must-win encounter

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The Independent Online

Neil Back always considered the past to be another country, although he never quite forgot those who did him down in the early years of his extraordinary career as a ground-breaking flanker. It is, therefore, of no comfort to him that his Leeds side have been here before and know what it takes to move somewhere else. The former England forward did not envisage being bottom of the pile at this stage of proceedings for the second season running, and he is growing restless. Tonight, he expects a result.

When he says this evening's meeting with Sale at Headingley is "nicely set up", he speaks with a chill in his voice. This is a must-win match for the Yorkshiremen, who have beefed up their pack by recalling Kearnan Myall and Daniel Browne to the loose combination and reshaped their back division to accommodate Ceiron Thomas, Michael Stephenson and Scott Mathie. "We've made no secret of the fact that the Premiership is our priority," the coach said yesterday. "We are confident we can produce a quality performance."

Leeds lost five of their opening six games last term, drawing the other. It was not until November that they found a way to win, beating Wasps away from home to launch what turned out to be a successful fight against relegation. Having ended the campaign rather impressively, they were expected to make ground more quickly this time round. Sadly for them, progress has been of the "pulling teeth" variety.

"When we sat down as a management team to plan for this season, we decided the best way forward was to reduce the size of the squad while increasing the quality," Back explained. "That was a calculated gamble, and because we've had to look after our players, we haven't been able to train with the combination of intensity and physicality we'd have liked. As a consequence, our decision-making under pressure hasn't been where it needs to be. However, we've been getting people back from injury and been able to step things up. We've seen the result of that in our last two games."

Newcastle have their first-choice pairing of Micky Young and Jimmy Gopperth back in tandem for tonight's visit of a Saracens side seeking a fifth straight Premiership win. Young, highly rated by many aficionados of scrum-half play, and the goal-kicking outside-half Gopperth were spared the discomfort of last weekend's Amlin Challenge Cup spanking in Montpellier, where 30-plus points were shipped for the third time this season. The Fijian centre Kameli Ratuvou will make his 100th appearance for Saracens, who travel with some serious speed on the wings, courtesy of David Strettle and Noah Cato.

The big game in Wales has Cardiff Blues, who lost narrowly at Castres in the Heineken Cup last weekend, hosting Scarlets, who lost so heavily to Leicester that a full recovery might take a while. The home side have an unfamiliar look about them up front, with the New Zealand lock Michael Paterson and the young back-rower Andries Pretorius both starting.

Talking of second-row forwards, the Leicester lock Richard Blaze has announced his retirement at the depressingly early age of 25. Blaze suffered a stress fracture of the foot in 2008, and even though his rehabilitation was sufficiently successful to see him elevated to the England training squad this time last year, the injury struck again. This time, there is no coming back.

"I've been advised that it's not going to stand up to the demands of a full-time career," he said. "I love the game. Now, it's time to move on and make decisions about my future."