Size still no barrier to success for Tigers' little big man

England once called him too small, but Leicester's Neil Back has retained his hunger for the game a year after his Test retirement. Chris Hewett talked to him
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The Independent Online

Over the past 12 days, England's foremost proponent of the Little Bang theory of sporting success - the diminutive Neil Back of Leicester - has achieved an unusual amount even by his own standards, which happen to be constructed on a far grander scale than the man himself. On Christmas Monday, Back scored his 74th try in the Premiership or its historical equivalent, thereby setting a record. Last Sunday, in the balls-and-all match with Gloucester at Kingsholm, he dived among the boots and bullets to produce the turnover of the season, allowing Andy Goode to break Cherry and White hearts with a 90-metre touchfinder. Thirty-six tomorrow week, he continues to run around like a 23-year-old.

Over the past 12 days, England's foremost proponent of the Little Bang theory of sporting success - the diminutive Neil Back of Leicester - has achieved an unusual amount even by his own standards, which happen to be constructed on a far grander scale than the man himself. On Christmas Monday, Back scored his 74th try in the Premiership or its historical equivalent, thereby setting a record. Last Sunday, in the balls-and-all match with Gloucester at Kingsholm, he dived among the boots and bullets to produce the turnover of the season, allowing Andy Goode to break Cherry and White hearts with a 90-metre touchfinder. Thirty-six tomorrow week, he continues to run around like a 23-year-old.

This nonsense must come to an end soon, surely to God. "As a matter of fact, my future is being discussed as we speak," he revealed on Thursday after performing his now customary dual role - 60 per cent coach, 40 per cent player - in a typically hard-nosed training session at the Tigers' base on the outskirts of town. "My contract is up in July, so this season was always going to be about looking ahead and putting new things in place. Do I want to play on? Well, I haven't noticed any deterioration in my game so far. There again, I realise it could happen at any moment. With my mentality I'd try to play forever, so it's important to get some myself good advice before making a decision. That's what I'm doing now."

He is unlikely to find himself scratching around for something to do. Already an important member of a Leicester coaching team led with increasing authority by the inestimable John Wells and sharpened by the southern hemisphere swagger of the former Wallaby midfielder Pat Howard, Back may well be fast-tracked through the back-room system on two fronts: the Tigers on the one hand, the national academy on the other. Unashamedly ambitious - "I want to be an England coach one day" - he was interviewed for an academy position last year. At the same time, he is reluctant to cut the umbilical cord with Leicester. "If someone comes up with a way of combining the two, fantastic," he said.

Fanaticism made flesh during his time as an international flanker, Back is more relaxed these days, even if he is no less a perfectionist. It is 10 months since he announced his retirement from Test rugby - a decision hastened, if not entirely driven, by Sir Clive Woodward's refusal to summon him from the bench as England were disappearing into their own nether regions against Ireland at Twickenham - and he does not betray the slightest sadness. He enjoyed a free summer for the first time in aeons, returned to training full of the joys, and hit every fitness target with energy to spare. It is entirely possible that he is in better shape now than he was during the 2003 World Cup.

Which is probably as well, given the nature of Leicester's challenge tomorrow. Biarritz are the visitors to Welford Road, and in pure back-row terms, the Frenchmen bring more to the Heineken Cup party than any club in Europe. Serge Betsen, Imanol Harinordoquy, Thomas Lièvremont, Christophe Milheres, Steeve Malonga - there is not a semblance of a mug amongst them, and Back knows it. He also knows his own mind and body, however, and having brazened it out against Joe Worsley, Johnny O'Connor and Lawrence Dallaglio in last month's back-to-back fixtures with Wasps, he fancies this one to bits. As ever, the most striking thing about him is the complete absence of self-doubt.

His is a confidence rooted in the knowledge that every avenue of improvement has been located, meticulously explored and successfully negotiated. "There have always been fresh ideas on fitness and conditioning, on diet and personal motivation, and I've made it my business to keep abreast of them," he said. "Those of us who came to professionalism through the old amateur system had no choice, really. People like Martin Johnson and myself were able to play for England in our thirties because we were willing to adapt, to take on board new theories.

"Even Jason Leonard - and I say 'even' with the greatest respect - reacted positively to developments. I remember the England squad filling in a questionnaire about nutrition and diet, and being asked how much alcohol we drank. Jason put down 20 pints a week. When he was asked whether that was three pints a night, he said: 'No, I drink them all on a Saturday!' But he changed, as did we all. I'm not sure that players raised in the professional environment will play at the top level for 16 years, as I have, because the game is so hard now. But coming from where I did, I believe a willingness to keep up with progress is the principal cause of my longevity.

"Mind you, I've come across some strange ideas in my time. One expert came up with a theory that we should eat loads of winegums and liquorice allsorts as part of a high-carbohydrate diet. So on an away trip somewhere, Dean Richards produced boxes of the stuff. I had one or two sweets, he ate the rest in the space of a few minutes. I don't think it was a particularly effective way of improving fitness."

Of course, it was Richards who paid the price of a season and a half of failure by losing his job as Leicester's director of rugby a year ago. To Back, a senior player who had been to hell and back with the great shambling bear of English rugby, it was a cathartic moment. He is not remotely critical of the Richards regime - "If Dean had stayed, we might still have reached this point in our fortunes," he said - but he believes the club needed a serious jolt of some description to shake it from its lethargy.

"It was such a massive event, it made everyone associated with Leicester look hard at themselves," he explained. "Collectively, we'd slipped in all areas. Ability is not enough in this game these days; it's no more than a starting point. If you want the kind of success we achieved between 1998 and 2002 - two Heineken Cups, four Premierships - you have to adhere to the highest standards in fitness and conditioning, in nutrition and recovery. Each scrum in each training session has to be right - not every other scrum, but every scrum full stop. We fell off that, and we started losing. Dean's departure was difficult for everyone, but the self-questioning it caused was an essential part of the recovery."

Along with Wells and Johnson, coach and captain respectively, Back is the conscience of this new Leicester, which looks uncannily like the old Leicester but contains elements of tactical flexibility and footballing adventure that were not obviously present during the trophy-laden era that culminated three years ago with an unprecedented and still unparalleled defence of the European title. In his coaching, he specialises in defensive organisation. In his playing, he continues to specialise in the things that made him a flanker of world class: tackling, scavenging, inexhaustible support work and an unerring eye for the main chance.

"My wife thought I'd be happy to ease off a little once the England thing was over and done with," he said. "Much to her frustration, it hasn't worked out like that. I still love playing - I'll never be any different, will I? - but I'm enjoying my coaching every bit as much. It does impact on my recovery time, I have to admit. Players finish training or playing and go home; I have videos and DVDs to go through, statistics to compile, analyses to complete - both of the last match and the one coming up - and a proper review to put together. Three days before a game, I do a presentation and then run the defensive session. Once you've finished that little lot and then played a game, there isn't much left of the week.

"But it's what I want to do. I'm proud of what I've achieved in my career, but I'm not the sort to sit down and stare at the past. As long as Leicester want me to play, I'll play. I'm still being picked for the first team - before you ask, I'm not on selection - and I haven't hit a plateau, either in the gym or on the field. It will come, though, and when it does, I want to have a clear idea of where I'm going."

No one ever had clearer ideas about rugby, or more far-sighted ones, than Neil Back. In so far as anything is certain in this game, the smallest World Cup-winning flanker in the history of the sport will remain among its biggest influences.

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