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
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The Independent Online

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.