Neil goes Back to the grassroots

Neil Back with junior players in the North West this week

Neil Back with junior players in the North West this week

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His rugby union career will always be defined by the events of one late November evening in 2003.

Neil Back was an integral member of Clive Woodward’s England team, which was bidding for sporting immortality in the final of the World Cup against host nation Australia.

A nail-biting encounter at the Telstra Stadium, in Sydney, ended with Jonny Wilkinson’s spectacular last-gasp drop-goal winning the match and the World Cup for Back and his team-mates.

After accomplishing such a momentous achievement, it could be expected that Back – now aged 46 – would spend his days reminiscing about the greatest moment of his playing career.

Remarkably, though, the former Leicester Tigers stalwart barely gives English rugby’s greatest victory a second thought from one day to the next.

In fact, he has only watched the final back once in the 12 years which have passed.

“I only think about it when people like you mention it if I’m being honest,” Back said to me with a slight smile on his face.

“I am probably like you or anybody else in that I just get on with the next thing which is in front of me.

“I’ve only ever watched the match back once and that happened exactly 10 years to the day.

“I was speaking at a dinner in the Isle of Man and we watched the match back as though it was live.

“Watching it back, my immediate thoughts were, ‘Oh my God...I made two bad passes in that game’, but I sort of got over it because we won the game, obviously.”

Back, who also represented the British Lions, has no need to watch the game back in any case, as he can virtually remember every throw and kick of the exhilarating final.

“I remember every single second of it,” Back said.

“The iconic moment was obviously Jonny dropping the goal, but when I think about the World Cup, I just think of the referee Andre Watson putting the whistle between his lips and blowing for full-time.

“That was it...we had won the World Cup.

“Up until that moment, we had not won, but they were great memories – it does seem a long time ago now.”

One of the reasons why England became the first and only northern hemisphere team to win the Webb Ellis Cup was because of coach Woodward’s extraordinary attention to detail.

From introducing skin tight strips to prevent opposing players pulling shirts in the tackle to his famous T-CUP mantra – Think Clearly Under Pressure – Woodward left nothing to chance.

Ahead of the most important game of their lives against the Aussies, Back recalls a calm and measured atmosphere in the dressing room before kick-off.

“It was like any dressing room before any other game,” Back said.

“That group of players got to a state of mind where we were all ultra-professionals, very mentally tough and very physically strong.

“When we crossed the paint – whether it was on the training field, an international game or the World Cup final – it was exactly the same.

“We would always try to replicate things.

“By doing that you get a high level of performance and consistency. That is what we were able to do.

“So the boring answer is the World Cup final was just our next game and it was the biggest game because of that fact.

“So when we crossed the paint, it was those high standards and high levels of performance, which got us across the line to beat Australia narrowly.”

Back was hopeful that the current England team would be able to repeat the glory of 2003 at this year’s World Cup as the competition’s host nation.

Unfortunately, the tournament proved to be a disaster for Stuart Lancaster and his men as they were eliminated in the group stages after defeats to both Wales and Australia.

New Zealand went on to be crowned champions in the final at Twickenham after beating the Wallabies.

While Back enjoys the prestige of being a member of the only England team to win the World Cup, he would love to see England players of the future experience what he did in 2003.

“People ask me if I still pinch myself when I think about the fact that I won the World Cup,” Back said.

“My answer is not really, because when you are a world champion, you are effectively a world champion for only four years until the next team wins it. That was of course South Africa in 2007 when they beat England in the final, although how we got to the final that year, I will never know.

“But going back to 2003 they are great memories and the longer the northern hemisphere teams – and particularly England – don’t win it, the more in demand I and the rest of the England squad from back then are going to be.

“We’re like the 1966 boys in football – until England win it again, then we will always be know as the only Englishmen to win it.

“I genuinely went into the World Cup just gone hoping that a northern hemisphere team would win it.

“I hoped England would do better than they did.”

In the aftermath, Lancaster lost his job as head coach and was replaced by Australian Eddie Jones – the man who ironically was in charge of the Wallabies in 2003.

“We’ve got a new coach in Eddie Jones and everyone who supports English rugby wishes him well,” Back said

“I think he will invoke change. The World Cup as a whole will invoke change in terms of the attacking philosophy of the northern hemisphere.”

An advocate of running rugby and scoring tries, it is this philosophy which persuaded Back to venture to the North West of England earlier this week to offer tips and advice to young 19-year-old Lancashire coach Chris Pickles.

A player at Burnley Rugby Club, Pickles was one of just four coaches across the country to be honoured by the My Coach programme, which is supported by QBE Insurance.

It rewards coaches who have inspired and supported success in players in grass roots rugby.

My Coach is a part of the QBE Coaching Club, a joint initiative between QBE Insurance and the RFU that has recruited and trained 2,015 new Level 2 rugby coaches.

“We have seen already in the Premiership that clubs and players are trying to 
emulate some of the high skill levels that some of the 
teams in the World Cup were showing, like New Zealand,” Back said.

“I don’t think the northern hemisphere teams going out so early has had a diminishing effect on the interest in the game.

“QBE are at the forefront of that. Running a programme like My Coach is what is required.

“The development of the coaches at grassroots level is what is needed.

“No disrespect, but the best coach I ever had was my first coach when I started at four years of age.

“I don’t think my first coach was RFU qualified but these QBE coaches are and it puts them in a better place.

“They work on skills development, making it fun and keeping the participation levels growing and high.

“My philosophy for playing is about scoring tries and high skill levels. At junior level it can be really difficult because everybody wants to win.

“Mum and dad on the sideline want their kid to win, but you have to be careful about that.

“If that’s the sole goal at junior level – the scoreboard – then you are going to lose players, because you are always going to pick the bigger and the older players.

“You might neglect that little gem, who could turn out to be another Neil Back.”