HE is a little thin on top now but, otherwise, Neil Back looks much as he did when he was winning pretty much everything the game had to offer, domestic, European and, of course, that World Cup final with England in 2003. If you look closely it’s just possible to make out each and every battle he has fought writ large on an expressive face.
The little big man is a product of Leicester rugby club. It made him what he was and what he is – a hugely ambitious coach in a hurry to make things happen. It even gave him the East Midlands accent that seems accentuated by the slow, studied pace of his speech.
It may not be complete coincidence that the two players most associated with cheating in the game are both graduates of the Welford Road school of hard knocks. In the 2002 Heineken Cup final, Back himself swiped the ball out of Munster scrum-half Peter Stringer’s hand to gain a strike against the head, and coach Dean Richards gained notoriety in the “bloodgate” scandal when one of his players faked injury to allow a specialist kicker back on to the field.
Leicester were always prepared to go that extra mile to ensure victory and, with the likes of Back, Martin Johnson, Graham Rowntree et al, the Tigers were tough, smart, ruthless, physically aggressive and eye-wateringly cynical in the way they went about their business.
That is largely why Back has been brought to the capital, to toughen up the soft underbelly of the entertainers, to put some steel in their soul. The Edinburgh forwards coach admits as much when asked if the team’s problems are technical in nature or more in the mind?
“Mental, one hundred per cent!” he says. “The winning mentality is everything. We’ve got to build a more ruthless, physical yes, but ruthless squad that is smart under pressure and makes good decisions under pressure and thus far this season we’ve tried a number of miracle passes which is not winning football.
“We’ve got to build pressure, not just on the opposition but also on the referee to give you decisions and not the other way around.”
When asked about his impact so far on the club’s big men, Back reels off statistics: “Ninety five per cent of lineouts won, four lineouts lost in five games, 95 per cent of set scrums won, two scrums lost. We’ve turned over the opposition set piece one in five times, two penalty tries.”
But all the facts and figures he produces can’t quite hide the fact that Edinburgh have won just two from six to date, with the reversals including defeat by a shadow Munster team at Murrayfield, a loss to the Dragons in Newport, and Friday’s home defeat by Treviso; all contests that a side with Edinburgh’s aspirations and ability should have taken in their stride.
Whatever else the Edinburgh pack has going for it – and it is chock full of athletic forwards – they have all the killer instict of a goldfish. Unlike Leicester and Munster in their pomp, Edinburgh haven’t got what it takes to grab the opposition by the throat and slowly squeeze the fighting spirit from their very bones. Back argues in favour of more competition for places to drive up standards but he also repeats the mantra of treating every game exactly the same.
“If you are playing in front of one person or 80,000 and 25 million more on TV, you still have to go out and give your best,” he says.
He’s right, of course, because the best teams in world rugby never take an afternoon off and it’s important that Edinburgh bring their best against Saracens in their first Heineken Cup pool match on Saturday because the stakes are perilously high.
After years of austerity, Scottish Rugby Union boss Mark Dodson has found money from somewhere to help bolster the two professional teams in an effort to build a successful base for the national team to sit atop. Edinburgh now have real depth in their squad, not that you would know it from their results. If the capital club fall flat on their faces after their heroics last season, when they reached the semi-finals, the failure will not only disillusion a sizeable chunk of the fanbase that they hope to attract to Murrayfield on a regular basis, but it will undermine the whole “speculate to accumulate” ethos that Dodson has introduced. Every area of the scrum has been strengthened and the third row now has an embarrassment of riches with two top-class players in every position. So the team needs to deliver, starting with Saturday’s visit of Saracens. The English side are a little like the Leicester of old: solid, unspectacular and highly effective, reliant upon set-piece excellence married to Owen Farrell’s boot and a defence that is almost impossible to score against. The match will pitch Edinburgh’s irresistible attack against Saracens’ immovable defence.
“We need to be physical,” says Back. “Saracens are a very physical team, very set-piece orientated, they kick the ball a lot, they work to play in your half and, if they get a chance, they stick the ball between the poles.
“Look at how many tries they have scored recently, it’s not a lot. They kick a lot of penalties, they drive the ball a lot. No team has driven a lineout against us this year, they’ve been put to ground. This will be a big challenge for us, a massive game. They are coming up here to win, I’m looking forward to that. They have some superb players but so do Edinburgh.
“On our day, from my many years at Leicester and knowing all the players I’ve worked with and played alongside and coached, I believe Edinburgh at their best can beat anyone and they showed that last year.”