There is something blackly comic in Neil Back preparing to leap from a plane at 13,000 feet, just as the Leeds side he coaches are staring relegation from the Premiership in the face. At least for his charity jump in the summer the former England flanker will be strapped to a Red Devil who knows what he is doing. The rugby union side, whose mates and ground-sharers at Leeds Rhinos are protected by Super League ring-fencing, cannot even be certain that Back will be with them if they plummet to the second division.
"I wouldn't want to walk away if we're relegated," says Back, whose team face Harlequins at Headingley today and Northampton away in their final match on Saturday week, needing to catch Newcastle who are above them on points difference (a big margin of 73). "That's not Neil Back. I don't fail and I would see that as a failure. I feel I can look myself in the mirror every night and be happy I have done everything possible to keep Leeds up. But there's a board meeting on Tuesday and we don't know what the financial position will be for next season. If they make a decision that massively reduces our chances of coming back up, it may be I have to make a decision."
Back looks at Harlequins, Northampton and the favourites to win this season's Championship and earn promotion, Worcester, and sees two common boxes ticked in these clubs' immediate return to the Premiership after being relegated: keeping their playing squad intact and continuing to spend up to the Premiership salary cap of £4.2 million. Leeds, in his three years as head coach and before, have done neither and have no plans to do so. "If we were to be relegated we won't tick box one and probably not box two either," Back says.
"We've got all the infrastructure here: the best in sports science through our link with the Met university; a new 3G pitch at the training ground; the pitch being relaid at Headingley and the south stand being rebuilt for a 22,000 capacity in the next 18 months. The only limiting factor has been our struggle to get the finance to compete for players. We have never been anywhere near to spending to the salary cap. No team at the top end of the Premiership has done it without spending at least the salary cap, if not more."
It has led Back, who hopes to raise £20,000 for wounded soldiers with his freefall over a Nottinghamshire airfield in June, to do an about-turn on the issue of promotion and relegation. "I used to think it was essential but not any more," he says. "If Leeds knew they were going to be in the Premiership for the next three seasons they would get the financial support. We would get top players to come here. Sponsors would come in because everyone wants to be associated with a good brand. Then it is about quality of play and not other reasons. We need a quality fly-half but the top players have already gone."
He also believes that England would benefit from a ring-fenced Premiership, as there would be more opportunities to develop young players. Instead, Leeds were asset-stripped last summer, losing Calum Clark, Joe Ford and Scott Armstrong to Saints, who are in the top four again. Back and the then director of rugby Andy Key,who was sacked in February, saw 17 players leave and managed to recruit 11.
In theory the quality had risen, though the quantity was reduced. A spate of injuries including the fly-half/centre Lachlan Mackay and captain, Marco Wentzel, meant the policy backfired, with up to a third of the squad injured at one time, compared with 10 per cent in the previous two seasons. Still Back insists there have been only "five games in all competitions we didn't deserve anything from".
They included the 51-18 defeat away to Harlequins in November, and Leeds were routed by the same score at Wasps last Sunday. But a remarkable 30-29 win at Newcastle two weeks ago raised hopes of making a third great escape to set alongside those of 2004 and last year when they defeated Worcester and sent them down in front of a 12,000 crowd at Headingley.
While his old club Leicester argue for the salary cap to be raised, and talk of a future without the likes of Leeds in a British and Irish or European league among a wealthy elite, Back is calling on the good folk of Yorkshire to flock to the Headingley gallows once more today and help cut his men from the noose. "The main drain on the team this year has been a mental one," Back says. "As a management team we've been fighting to keep them strong in their belief. Without belief, there is nothing."
Leeds v Harlequins is a 3pm kick-off todayReuse content