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Neil Back

Nation: England
Date of Birth: January 16, 1969
Place of Birth: Coventry
Position: Flanker
66 caps between 1994 and 2005
England v Samoa (November 26, 2005)

There is a symmetry to Neil Back’s rugby career. It began and ended with Australia.

He finished on a high against the Wallabies, as a member of England’s World Cup-winning team in 2003, but his career had a less than auspicious start, against Australia Schoolboys in 1987. It was a match England lost, but the defeat was sweetened by the fact that the match was played at Twickenham, a rare treat since it was usually the domain of the senior sides at the time.

His memory of his first steps on the hallowed turf of Headquarters is limited to the on-pitch activity. He cannot remember if the crowd was big. He can’t even remember much about the Stadium.

“A match is not about the crowd,” explained Back. “Even in those days I walked the edge of the pitch and looked in, towards it. Everything else before and during a game is nothing but hype and distraction.”

Anyway he already knew what the place looked like. “I’d been there before to watch a Varsity Match, although I had not watched an international. But playing there was a great occasion for a schoolboy. It was an unbelievable experience to play my first representative match at Twickenham.”

It was youth and the Twickenham connection that somehow struck a chord with Back. So much so that in the 1999 Rugby World Cup, after England had beaten Italy by a cricket score, Back carried his daughter Olivia, aged six days, around the England dressing room afterwards.

As introductions to the game go, it wasn’t a bad one. Four years later Olivia was again in the company of Back and his England team-mates, this time in Sydney’s Telstra Stadium. The tiny talisman was kissed, hugged, held aloft and generally enjoyed as much as the trophy itself.

Not long after his schoolboy debut on the ground, Back found himself back there, in 1990. It was a step closer to his ambition of playing for his country, but this time in opposition to England as a member of the Barbarians back row.

“That was a fantastic experience,” he said. “I got on the pitch for the last 25 minutes and I was involved in one of the tries, which Phil Davies scored in a corner after a back row move. That appearance put me on the map at senior level.

“It was an incredible experience for me. I remember going into the players’ dining room and sitting alongside one of the world’s greats, David Campese, and I felt out of my depth and a bit guilty that I was a part of it all. I had got in as the uncapped player but I took it all in.”

Sadly the England selectors did not. His 25 minutes went unnoticed for a further four years. There were various reasons given for his exclusion, one of the chief ones being his lack of height as an open-side flanker.

It was not until the 1994 Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield that Back finally pulled on a red rose jersey to make a victorious debut, albeit by a single point.

A fortnight later he was back at Twickenham, this time as a senior England player to take on Ireland. They lost, coincidentally by a single point. “Myself and four others were dropped after that game,” said Back, who had to wait a further three years before returning to Twickenham. “It’s not a great memory of Twickenham, that Ireland defeat.”

There was an even less pleasant memory two years later, in the 1996 Pilkington Cup final between his club Leicester and Bath.

The Tigers lost the match late in the game when referee Steve Lander awarded Bath a penalty try. When the whistle blew a disappointed Back pushed out blindly in anger at a figure in front of him. Unfortunately that figure was Lander. The match official fell over and Back was subsequently banned for six months.

“I regret it now, but I am a very competitive person. And contrary to what was said in certain quarters, I did not run after the official. He walked across my path and I pushed at a body, in frustration. It could have been anyone, even one of my own team-mates, but it happened to be Steve Lander.”

But every cloud and all that. Back, who had a reputation as a fitness fanatic, took advantage of the lengthy ban. “That six-month break from playing allowed me to refresh myself. I got myself together. In that time I got engaged to Alison, bought a house and had a month off, then I used the next five months to get myself fit.”

Finally he was back at Twickenham, starting in the back row against New Zealand, having appeared in the first Test at Old Trafford in Manchester a week earlier. While not tasting victory, Back at least did not finish on the losing side. Instead he found himself part of English rugby history by playing in the first draw between the two countries.

It was all brighter after that. Indeed some of his proudest moments in an England shirt at Twickenham came in 2001 when he was asked to lead his country.

“I captained England against Australia,” he explained, “and we beat them 21-15 and I lifted the Cook Cup on behalf of England. That was one of my proudest moments.”

That was the first of a total of four matches in charge and Back ended up with a 100 per cent record. A week after the walloping of the Wallabies, h e was captain when England raced to their record 134-0 victory over Romania. “We beat Romania to nil,” said Back, “which was important to me. I wanted us to be totally ruthless and we were. We really nailed them that day.”

His final match in charge was the following season against Italy in Rome and coincided with the winning of his 50th cap. More significantly, a week earlier he had led England to a crushing 50-10 victory over Wales at Twickenham.

Now with 66 caps to his name and a place in the pantheon of great England players, Back was almost lost for words at his elevation to the Wall of Fame. “I find it incredible that I am included in such an illustrious list of players. I feel very privileged. It is a fantastic honour.”

Article by Dai Llewellyn


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