Interview: Neil Back, Edinburgh forwards coach and former England international
NEIL Back slipped into the Scottish game quietly this summer and is quickly discovering how much harder success is to achieve north of the border than in his previous incarnations with Leicester, England and the British and Irish Lions.
But, it makes a change from his last introduction at Murrayfield. Wind back more than 18 years and a young, blond, Leicester openside flanker, who successive England coaches reckoned to be too small for the international game, took to the field for his full international debut in the Calcutta Cup. He remembers the game but recalls more about what happened after it and his achievement in merely being able to stand and recover in the following days still ranks as a notable one in the Back catalogue of sporting success.
He has been firmly focused on Edinburgh this week and the task of turning around the club’s fortunes, so ponders the question at length, when asked to look back to his own days and what he remembers of Scotland, and Scottish rugby.
“In terms of how much games with Scotland meant to me, or the Calcutta Cup matches, to be honest they didn’t stand out as a game above others necessarily. With me, whether I’m playing tiddlywinks with my kids or playing in a World Cup final, the competition is the same, and I approach it in the same manner. A game against Scotland was the same as against any other nation, or playing in the Premiership, Heineken Cup or British Lions tours.
“I am trying to instil that in players here, that you have to have the same committed, competitive approach to every game because I think that’s the only way you can create a strong desire to succeed and a winning mentality.
“Mentality is part of a person and a strong mentality is common among people who achieve at a high level. How many times do you hear people say ‘he was a great sportsman, or she was a great sportswoman’, but they didn’t make it. Now, it may have been down to injury, but the most probable reason is that they didn’t have the mental toughness to succeed at a high level.”
There is little doubting Back’s mental toughness and Edinburgh supporters are intrigued to know how he is working behind the scenes at Murrayfield. But we are not finished on the memories quite yet. “Yes, the Calcutta Cup does have particularly fond memories because it was where I made my debut, here at Murrayfield in 1994. We thrashed Scotland that day, 15-14 with a last-minute penalty from Jon Callard. I think that’s the only time I’ve kissed a man.
“It was fantastic. My parents came up. They were up here last week, and we went for a walk down Princes Street and my mum said they went into a flower shop along there on that day in 1994 and bought some roses, and the woman in there said to her ‘you’re not going to win you know’. She felt that competitiveness coming even from a flower shop owner, towards a person with an English accent but, to me, that was an awesome occasion. I worked hard through the junior ranks with England, played a senior game against Italy in 1990, but it was an uncapped game, and it took me four more years to get a full cap.
“I think by then I was the most capped A, B or England XV player. But it was a special day and special moment, and Doddie Weir afterwards made sure I remembered it.
“At the dinner afterwards there was a tradition for the opposition to drink with the new capped player. I didn’t drink a lot and thought I’d be alright sticking to Guinness but I didn’t know until the next day that, on the table there were little bottles of whisky, and he put one or two, probably three, in every pint that I drank. So, when it came to me being asked to stand up and come and receive my cap, I stood up and still don’t actually know how I got to the front, got my cap and walked back to my seat, because my legs went.”
And the memory of that day doesn’t end there. “I lost my teeth playing rugby and so wore dentures, and people used to ask me why I wore my gumshield when I was interviewed straight after the game. Well, it was because I hadn’t got to the changing room yet to get my dentures.
“After that dinner, where I was obviously made very ill by Doddie, who I saw the other week, bless him, I was sick in the gutter and my dentures went down a drain. I then had to physically remove them from the drain, give them a wipe and put them straight back in.
“Those are the most vivid memories I have of Scotland from my time as a player. Funny what stays with you.”
Back comes across as a straightforward guy. It is not hard to recall the passion he showed as a player. But it is hidden now by his quiet-spoken, thoughtful approach.
He dismisses talk of having to wait longer than he might have to be recognised by England, insisting that “for whatever reason I wasn’t good enough”.
Now, he preaches to players that the key to success is hard work and a desire to turn what little talent players have into more and more each week, each month, each season and with each learning experience that comes along.
But there is little straightforward about Back. For example, shinty at school?
“Yes, I played shinty,” he said.
“I went to state school in Coventry and I was lucky. We did rugby, football, shinty, netball, rounders. We had a local professional cricketer and I played cricket three or four times a week until I was 20. I don’t know why we played shinty. It was only in the school playground really. Maybe it just was a pupil who had come across it and wanted to introduce it to the playground, but I enjoyed it.
“But I remember doing loads of sport at school, gymnastics, vaulting, using wall bars. Kids don’t do it now. My son is ten and has been at Nottingham Forest for a couple of years and the kids were asked to do a forward roll and he couldn’t do one. He’d never done one. When I was at school we used to do forward rolls, backward rolls, handstands, climb to the roof. That was all upper body strength, mental strength, pushing through pain, testing yourself in different ways and pushing on physically and mentally. It’s not the same now.”
After retiring as a player at the end of the 2005 Lions tour, the oldest player to have worn the red jersey at 36, Back made a conscious decision to leave Leicester after 18 years at the club and develop as a coach elsewhere. He joined Leeds and then Rugby Lions and, both times, was undone by promises of budgets which never materialised. But he insisted he learned much and has become a better coach for the experience. He came to Edinburgh for similar reasons, to move out of any perceived comfort zone and has certainly found that to be the case.
He spent time this week with former All Blacks coach Wayne Smith and impressed him with his approach and rugby intelligence. The Edinburgh players have been similarly impressed by his attention to detail, and the pack is improving but Back needs results to back it up now.
“Results are the things missing in recent weeks, but I look at the performances,” he said. “If you look at last year’s results they were better early on and were obviously better in the Heineken Cup but, when you analyse the games, the performances were not better.
“This season, only one league match has been well out of our hands. The others were all within a score. The Heineken Cup was poor and we have worked hard to analyse why that happened, but, in last season’s Heineken Cup run, as great as it was, almost every game could have gone either way. They were very close.
“In terms of performance we are pleased with a lot of what the team is doing but we’re all extremely competitive and we all want to win. I won everything I could as a player and I know how that feels. I want the same for myself and the teams I’m with as a coach.
“It starts with improving performances and we saw improvement last week. We need that again this weekend against Ulster, which will be very tough across there, but it is coming. I am enjoying the work and enjoying seeing these players grow, as I would at any club.
“It is a bit funny being at Murrayfield, where my international career started, but don’t ask me about Scotland, and how they’ll go in the next few weeks. My focus is just on Edinburgh!”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Friday 24 May 2013
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