FORMER England and British and Irish Lions flanker Neil Back has thrown his hat in the ring for the vacant head coach job at Edinburgh.
Back was a surprise addition to the club as forwards coach last summer, when he took over from Tom Smith, the former Scotland and Lions prop, and was handed a two-year contract.
When the SRU board decided earlier this month that Edinburgh’s progress was stalling and change was required, they relieved head coach Michael Bradley of his position, although he agreed to continue until the end of the season. Defence coach Billy McGinty decided to go immediately but both men were on two-year deals that were up in June anyway.
There has been no indication from the SRU whether they see Back as a possible replacement for Bradley and they are looking far and wide for candidates.
But Back is clear that he would like the opportunity to step up. “Previously, I’ve been head coach,” said Back, “and, since I came here as assistant coach, I’ve done my best to support Michael in his playing philosophy. But I’ve got my own playing philosophy and I’d like the chance to work as a head coach in the future at Edinburgh rugby or elsewhere.
“It was disappointing [when Bradley was sacked]. I joined as assistant coach this year and hoped to spend more than a short time together. I think Michael has made some big improvements and, unfortunately, with that platform laid, he’s not going to see it through. But, hopefully I’ll have an opportunity in the future to progress the work he has put in.”
At present, Back has been told to continue as normal, working with Bradley to develop the team for the remaining games and also step in with Bradley on the defence side of coaching to fill the gap left by McGinty.
Back’s past experience as a coach was at Leeds and Rugby Lions, where he did have the head coach role but with mixed results. The former Premiership and Heineken Cup champion with Leicester is still cutting his teeth in coaching but is experienced enough to have seen, as Edinburgh’s losing run rattled on, Bradley’s departure coming.
However, he remains convinced that Edinburgh have the potential to return to the top echelons of the RaboDirect PRO12 and challenge in Europe, if there is patience with what remains a largely young squad.
“We are in a results business, so it’s not a massive shock,” he said. “Sometimes the work behind the scenes isn’t seen. This happens in our sport and many other sports, coaches and players move on.
“But I’m in an environment where I recognise the talent that is there and, if we keep the core of these players together, Edinburgh can have a great side in the future, and I’d like to be a part of that.
“I’m very passionate about coaching. I love it.
“I think this year, if you look away from the results, which I know is tough to do, there has been a lot of development of young players, through the SRU’s IPD [Individual Player Development] programme and that has been invaluable.
“There is no doubt that there is a lot of improvement to come. I keep mentioning it, but we do have a very young pack and the clubs we came up against in Europe – Saracens, one of the top sides in the Premiership, Munster, a top side in the Rabo, and Racing Metro with their finance – were tough and a lot more experienced.
“We also had the same side available all the way through the competition last season and that hasn’t been the case this year, due to injuries and whatever. But, as I’ve said, it has given a lot of 19 and 20-year-olds the opportunity to play against British Lions players, and that’s an invaluable experience and, hopefully, they can take on the lessons.
“There is a nucleus of players here that are good, not yet good enough, but who can be great in the future if we can keep them together and help them develop, and hopefully I can help them be great.”
Back insists that there has been no deal done behind the scenes to allow him to take over as soon as Bradley’s tenure ends with the last game of the season, and so dismissed questions on whether he would wish to bring in assistants he knows from England or look to local coaches if he took on the top job.
Preferring to focus on the job in hand, of getting Edinburgh back on a winning road in their final six games of the season, he praised Bradley’s desire to leave Edinburgh stronger than when he came in two years ago, with work on the re-signing of players and signing of new players.
Back added that the desire among the players had also survived the third change of head coach in four years, and that there was a feeling now that this season may prove to have been a necessary evil on the road back to title contention.
“The spirit is really high. From the outside, people will probably think it’s not like that but they are buoyant and really love their job, and they recognise that they are close to getting the win we need, but also stringing those wins together, and I’m very excited about the next six games and, hopefully, playing a part in putting down a playing philosophy for the future.”