Neil Back: 'When that whistle blew I thought enough was enough'

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Neil Back - whether or not he is rugby union's finest, but certainly its fittest player - has never quite matched the eccentricities of former England wicket-keeper Jack Russell, whose retirement this week prompted some reminiscences from my colleague Angus Fraser that made me wonder how Russell got to the end of his career without being carted off in a straitjacket.

Neil Back - whether or not he is rugby union's finest, but certainly its fittest player - has never quite matched the eccentricities of former England wicket-keeper Jack Russell, whose retirement this week prompted some reminiscences from my colleague Angus Fraser that made me wonder how Russell got to the end of his career without being carted off in a straitjacket.

But Back is still pretty strange, as obsessively neat and tidy as Russell was shabby and shambolic. None of his team-mates, whether with Leicester Tigers or England or both, have ever been able to say that they really know the man. So there is scant chance of me getting under his skin during an hour sipping cappuccinos at the Leicester Hilton.

That said, he is friendly, open and, in a slow, considered kind of way, loquacious. He is also, indubitably, neat and tidy. He is wearing a skin-tight white T-shirt showing off, whether deliberately or not, an impressive six-pack. My own Party Seven, happily, is well concealed.

We are here in part to talk about England's chances against Australia today, the chance of avoiding three straight defeats in three summer Tests, following the hidings administered by the All-Blacks. It is, of course, the first time England have met the Wallabies since the World Cup final, in which Back played such a substantial part. And the Australian XV, unlike that of the tourists, still bears a strong resemblance to the side which lined up for the final last November.

"But I don't think that revenge is what will be motivating Australia," says Back. "I think it will be more that they want to do what New Zealand have done. Everyone likes beating England at any time, but they will be even keener now after the first two Tests. As for England, they won't be at all confident, but they're underdogs, and that's a good position to strike from."

Back watched the New Zealand matches on holiday in Mallorca. "Well, I watched the first one, but I didn't watch all of the second. After Shawsy [Simon Shaw] was sent off, the writing was on the wall. So I went down to the beach with the children, which was much more enjoyable.

"The thing to remember is that this is a new beginning for England, and even if they do come back with three defeats, it will do the guys good.

"That so-called tour of doom in 1998, that was good for the guys who went. You need to feel the pain of defeat to make you strive to avoid it again. And if you play the top teams enough, occasionally you will lose. But at the same time, as winning becomes a habit, so does losing."

The ponderous voice and flat Midlands accent with which Back delivers these aphorisms is a combination that has foxed some into thinking that he is not terribly bright. Big mistake. He's a shrewd cookie, and as befits his new responsibilities as defensive coach at Welford Road, there is a keen rugby brain between those cauliflower ears.

I ask him how he thinks his old stamping ground, the back row, has done Down Under? "Well, obviously [Chris] Jones struggled in the first test. He's got a big career ahead of him but he needs to analyse his own game more and understand his role in the team. It's all about complementing each other's strengths. With myself, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio, if you looked at who did the most ball carrying it was Lol, then Hilly, then me, but if you looked at tackling it was me, then Hilly, then Lawrence. At first receiver it was me, then Hilly, then Lawrence."

"With the new back row, that will develop over time. But with Jones the team also needs to give him the opportunity to do what he does well. Other than that, it's not for me to say. I'm not his coach. If he asks me then I'll tell him what I think."

On the intriguing theme of bodily fluids, Back is less reserved. He it was who revealed to the world that one of the England team, desperate for a pee during the victory parade through London following the World Cup, had been forced on the top of the bus to deploy a Champagne bottle, but missed and urinated down the leg of another member of the team, much to the interest of one of the Queen's corgis during the subsequent reception at Buckingham Palace.

For me he recounts the tale of the deep-sea fishing-and-bonding trip before the 1999 World Cup, during which 21 out of 23 in the England party threw up. Only Clive Woodward and backs coach Phil Larder were spared the indignity. Yet Back's tidiness surfaced even while his insides were in such disarray. Unlike some of his teammates, he insisted on throwing up into a bag, which the boat's skipper, who had greatly enjoyed the spectacle of all these macho England players heaving over the side, then carried ashore.

However, no sooner had he stepped onto the jetty than the bag burst, depositing the contents all over his feet.

It is a cracking story, but I wonder whether it is typical of Back to tell a tale ostensibly against himself, in which someone else ends up as the fall guy? Certainly he is not short of self-esteem, but it is a harsh observation; self-esteem, or its close cousin arrogance, is often what propels these people to become the best.

It was Back's conviction that he was the best which caused him such anguish during this year's Six Nations tournament. Had he played against Ireland at Twickenham, as he fully expected to do, then he would be in Brisbane today, perhaps starting the match against Australia. But he was on the bench as it kicked off, assumed he would get the nod at half-time, only to find himself still on the bench at the final whistle, by which time the world champions had been defeated 13-19. It was then that he decided to withdraw from the summer tour, which in effect meant that he had worn the England shirt for the last time.

"When that whistle blew I thought enough was enough. I'd supported Clive's policy for the games against Italy and Scotland (for which he was not selected), which with no disrespect to those teams, were ideal opportunities to try new players. Then he brought me into the 22 for the Ireland game and at half-time I thought I'd be on. I really felt I could make a difference. Of course, you're always going to pick yourself; I'd probably still pick myself at 50. But I'd played well in the World Cup, I felt I was on top of my game, physically and in terms of ability.

"Their seven (Keith Gleeson) that day was playing like he'd never played, but I thought I could nullify him, by beating him to the ball and winning it. I got a stiff neck glancing to the dug-out to get eye-tagged to come on. I think Clive got tied up with the line-out and because of that I was overlooked, but we were losing the battle in other areas where I felt I could make a difference. When I got home after that game, as soon as I walked through the door my eyes met my wife Ali's eyes and she knew what I was feeling. We booked our summer holiday straight away."

Had Back followed the example of his club and country team-mate Martin Johnson, and retired from international rugby after the World Cup, he would have exited in glory rather than disillusion. Surely he regrets that now?

"No. What Johnno did was right for him and this was right for me. I thought it would be the easy way out to retire then. I'd won everything there was to win, yes, but my whole focus was team-orientated. That might sound a bit who-do-you-think-you-are? But I honestly felt I could contribute. I knew England were entering a transition period, and I wanted to use my experience of playing international rugby for over a decade to help that new talent through. That's why I committed to the summer tour, because Clive had made it clear that nobody would be considered for the Six Nations otherwise."

Ali Back, meanwhile, was not overly keen on losing her man for several weeks over the summer. She had already felt like a single parent during the first year of their son Finley's life. At the joyous conclusion of the World Cup final, when Back gathered his four-year-old daughter Olivia in his arms and then went to pick up one-year-old Finley, the little boy shrunk from him.

"Ali said to me, 'He doesn't know you.' And it's true that I had been away for more days than he had been alive."

Which must have given Back a strange stab of emotional pain during a time of such joy. Indeed his story reminds of something the footballer Mark Hughes once told me, that following Manchester United's defeat of Everton in the 1985 FA Cup final, he wandered round the Wembley turf feeling not euphoric but lonely, because he didn't have any friends in the team and didn't feel part of the celebrations. Back's situation was different, of course, but even so, one doesn't think of a World Cup winner feeling any emotion but rapture.

"Yeah, and that's what made the later decision [to retire] easier," he says. "I would be able to spend the summer with the family. Plus, I had new duties at Leicester, following the departure of [coach] Dean Richards." It is said that some senior players at Leicester conspired in effecting that departure. Whether Back was among them I have no idea. He gives Richards full credit for what Leicester have achieved these past few years, but then how could anyone not?

"Deano did a fantastic job. Four Zurich Premiership titles, two European Cups back to back ... he left a massive void. I think the situation we've got into, 13 games unbeaten at the end of last season, could have worked with Deano still there. But nobody's indispensable. We've rejigged it behind the scenes, got rid of one or two people in the background, there's much more harmony than in the past. I'm very excited about playing rugby next season."

Pre-season training begins on Monday morning and Back, who even in Mallorca took himself off on several gruelling road runs, will be ready. On that you can stake your mortgage.

But the talent was there before the fitness. He was one of those kids who in a sporting context could do pretty much everything. He played football for Coventry Schools, cricket for Warwickshire Schools, and rugby for Coventry, Warwickshire, East Midlands, Midlands and then England Schools. As an England schoolboy he was also the only state schoolboy. I ask him whether he encountered any snobbery?

"Ask my mother and father about that," he says. "When I played for England Schools there was a lunch before the match, and some woman went up to my mum and said 'And who are you?' She said 'I'm Neil Back's mum.' And this woman said, 'Oh, where does he go to school?' My mum said 'He goes to a state school in Coventry' and this woman said 'Oh, he has done well then, hasn't he?'

"Then, for England under-18s, I'd played really well against Wales and was dropped against France. Another guy, also called Neil, was brought in, and it was entirely down to the old school tie. In fact I had a letter after the World Cup from the guy who'd been in charge of selection, apologising."

Back takes another sip of cappuccino, taking care not to end up with froth on his upper lip. "But I'm not bitter about it. These things make you the character you are."


1990 Signs professional forms for Leicester Tigers.

1994 Wins first of 66 England caps, against Scotland. Labelled 'too small' by then manager Geoff Cooke, and largely shunned by his successor Jack Rowell.

1995 Plays in his first Rugby World Cup. His role becomes pivotal for the 1999 and 2003 campaigns.

1997 Member of British Lions squad in South Africa. Lions claim a dramatic series 2-1.

1998 Named Rugby Football Union Player of the Year.

1999 Players' Player of the Year. Regains his England place, becomes an automatic selection under Woodward.

2001 Claims his fourth British Lions cap in Australia, although the Lions lose 2-1.

2002 Wins fourth successive League title with Leicester, fifth of his career.

2003 Back-to-back Heineken Cup wins. Secures the Grand Slam in Dublin and then the Rugby World Cup in Australia. Assumes captaincy of Leicester Tigers.

2004 Overlooked for Six Nations, despite personal claims his form and fitness warrant selection. Awarded MBE.

Jamie Ricketts