Leeds: Back on the right track

The doubters said Leeds would see only instant relegation from the Premiership. Chris Brereton meets former England flanker Neil Back, the streetwise coach who is working a minor miracle

Neil Back is not a man prone to panic. Panic does not win you 66 England caps and five British and Irish Lions Test appearances.

It does not help you lift the World Cup as well as every domestic honour available to a northern hemisphere player. It does not help you infamously aid and abet Leicester Tigers' victory over Munster in the 2002 Heineken Cup final, when he used every ounce of the black arts he had acquired at rugby's coalface to knock the ball out of the hands of Munster's Peter Stringer at a scrum to help secure the win.

In other words, Back has therefore been the perfect man to help Leeds this season. Because for most people, panic would have been the default setting for much of the happenings at Headingley.

For the majority of this year, Leeds seemed to be doing little else apart from confirming the expectations of most pre-season tipsters about their future in the top flight. Or to be more accurate, their lack of a future.

With a budget that is roughly half of the other sides in the league following their promotion, Leeds always seemed destined to struggle and apart from a surprise yet well-deserved victory against London Wasps on the opening day of November, things looked decidedly grim up north.

How quickly life can change.

From looking like relegation certainties just a month ago, consecutive victories against Sale, Wasps and Saracens have lifted them of the bottom of the table and proved that rumours of their demise have been spectacularly premature.

There is still a way to go before they knock Lazarus off the top of the billing for amazing comebacks but he is certainly glancing at them nervously. Although it has to be said, not as nervously as Worcester, Sale and Newcastle, those sides immediately around them.

However, the only surprise for Back is that their turnaround is a surprise at all. "Panic? I can honestly say I have never ever panicked," he said. "I believed pre-season along with Andy [Key, the Leeds director of rugby and Back's coaching partner] that we were good enough to stay in the Premiership and nothing that has happened since has changed that opinion.

"We said last season that promotion to the Premiership was non-negotiable and we succeeded in that and now we believe that consolidating our position in the Premiership is not only possible but the minimum of what we expect."

So what has changed? Why does sport throw up these seemingly anomalous turnarounds? For Back, it is not a question of what has started going right, it is more about what has stopped going wrong. "Our game management and mental strength has improved and will keep improving," he said. "We have stopped worrying about mistakes, we have stopped being sidetracked by poor decisions and we have simply started to manage our physical ability with a level of mental toughness which gives us the chance to operate at this level.

"When I came to the club [in the summer of 2008] I wanted to work on the physical conditioning of the players and to get them to the stage where they could compete for 80 minutes.

"They have managed to do that thanks to their professionalism and desire and they have married that with mental strength. I felt this was always going to happen – it was just a matter of time.

"I think of it like driving a car for the first time. When you are given all this new information and all these new tips you cannot take it in. Before you know it, it is second nature and you drive without even thinking about it.

"That is the stage we have got to here. The players needed a period of transition where our ideas could sink in and we are now seeing that that is exactly what has happened."

As the oldest-ever Lions Test player, Back has more miles on the clock than most and with his experience comes the knowledge that while no cause is ever lost, no cause is a certainty either.

An encounter with Gloucester this afternoon at Kingsholm merely underlines that his side are by no means clear of the danger zone just yet. And while he was not panicking when the writing was on the wall, he will be damned if he is to start relaxing just yet.

"We have a togetherness and a belief in our own ability," he added. "But that does not mean we are complacent in any way and neither will that happen. The bottom is still ridiculously tight but these wins are the product of what we have been working on all season. We shall continue to work on them"

Headingley and comebacks have always gone hand in hand. But forget Botham, cricket and 1981. Start thinking Back, rugby and 2010.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Property
pets
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe C-Word, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Sport
Danny Jones was in the Wales squad for the 2013 World Cup
rugby leagueKeighley Cougars half-back was taken off after just four minutes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
The original ZX Spectrum was simple to plug into your TV and get playing on
techThirty years on, the ZX Spectrum is back, after a fashion
News
Tiger Woods and Lindsey Vonn are breaking up after nearly three years together
peopleFormer couple announce separation in posts on their websites
Sport
football
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’
tvThe Enfield Haunting, TV review
News
news
News
The Mattehorn stands reflected in Leisee lake near Sunnegga station on June 30, 2013 near Zermatt, Switzerland
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living