Neil Back Interview
by Duncan Thorne
A World Cup, a Grand Slam, Five and Six Nations, Heineken Cups, Premiership titles, Player of the Year, Players’ Player of the Year, top try scorer, three British Lions tours, 66 Tests and the oldest man to play for the Lions – Neil Back MBE has seen it all and won it all (more than once).
So there’s no-one better placed to lead Leeds Carnegie in their bid to retain their Premiership status. Tough, uncompromising and belligerent as a player, Back has already achieved success in his role as Head Coach of Leeds after guiding them to promotion from League One at the first time of asking. During his playing career he showed determination and an incredible drive to win that might have bordered on the side of gamesmanship depending on your allegiance. But the one certain thing with Neil Back is that he’ll give 100 per cent and leave no stone unturned as he continues in his quest for perfection.
“Getting the people in to achieve our goals”
Now facing one of his biggest challenges, how does he stop the yo-yo effect that has blighted Leeds over recent years and establish the club in the Guinness Premiership?
“When I arrived at the club we had a three-year plan,” he says. “The first year was non-negotiable – we had to get promoted to the Premiership – and we did. Year two our objective is consolidation in the Premiership and success is finishing 11th as that will fulfil our goal. But we want more than that. If we achieve our objective and consolidate, then next year we get a full share of the money that’s distributed to the Premiership clubs. So from a financial point of view we get an extra million (pounds) in the pot. This means recruitment becomes easier because you’re a Premiership club, more finance comes in through sponsorship, corporate hospitality and more people come through the gates.
“So if we can stay up we can really build and push on in the following year. When Harlequins and Northampton went down they retained the majority of their squad. When Leeds went down the previous time the majority of players had a clause in their contract saying they could leave. And they did. So it was a rebuilding process then and we had to do it again. Last year was about getting the people in to achieve our goals and bringing them on and then shedding some off that weren’t good enough, bringing some on top and then moving that squad up.
“Everything we need is here”
“We’ll do the same this year as well so everyone’s moving forward to a better place. There are some players in our squad that aren’t good enough for the Premiership. But we provide everyone with the best environment to maximise their potential. If you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough. We can sort of live with that. But if you fail through lack of effort then that’s tough. At the end of the year we want them to look back and say ‘I couldn’t have done anymore’. We’ll move on and bring better players in to achieve the goals that we want. This is top level rugby and we’ve to be honest.”
The ‘best environment’ Back talks about is clear to see as he shows me around the Leeds Rugby Academy built on the old Headingley Rugby Club site. The club’s unique partnership with Leeds Rhinos and Leeds Metropolitan University means Back has access to sports science, physiotherapy and research departments, the academy training facilities and Headingley Stadium – and all are within a three mile radius.
“Everything we need is here and in place for this to be a great club for the future. The training facilities are fantastic, we’ve training pitches that are better than a lot of club’s first team pitches, they’re the same dimensions as our playing pitch and we’ve sports science at the university. Players here should really develop with these facilities.”
“It’s been a continual improvement”
With the infrastructure in place and the plan devised, all that’s left for Back is to execute it. As ever, he’s straight to the point as he’s always been throughout his career.
“We always knew with this group of players that there were better squads out there. So it’s really important that we could get them in the physical shape so they could compete for 80 minutes. We’ve demonstrated that in pre-season. Our games so far in the Premiership, including the win at Wasps, show it’s working. We’ve a lack of experience in terms of dealing with the pressure of game management and decision making in the Premiership. We’ve got to be clearer, quicker and more precise. With more experience they’ll become better equipped with making decisions under pressure and their ability to concentrate for the full 80 minutes.
“But this has grown with each game. Those are the signs that you want to see. We carry out video reviews of the forwards and backs, team reviews and individual reviews and we’ve been able to demonstrate the performance has been good. But it’s not been consistent. At this level, lapses in concentration can be brutal. Nothing other than matches can provide you with these challenges. You can try and replicate it but it’s all about game time and making the decisions under extreme pressure. But we’ve not reached a plateau yet. It’s been a continual improvement and that’s pleasing. We’ve built an environment here that is very critical and very honest. Our feedback sessions are such that no-one can hide and no-one does hide.”
“I had to be fitter and give myself an edge elsewhere”
Who would dare? This is a man who refused to be beaten on numerous occasions throughout his playing career. Discarded by England coach Geoff Cooke in 1991 and told he was too small for international rugby, he still became a pioneer of the modern game, with his steely determination to be the best and by being the fittest and most willing to sacrifice.
“When I started my career rugby was amateur and I was a pensions’ manager working a flexible 35 hour week in an office, training twice a week with Leicester and three times a week on my own. I hooked up with the head of sport at Loughbourgh University and worked on diet, nutrition, rest, recovery and had an individual programme four years before everyone else started doing it. Because I’m not the biggest, I had to be fitter and give myself an edge elsewhere and hope others weren’t doing the same.
“I’ve never been a big drinker because I knew it was detrimental to performance. I don’t need a lot of drink to have a good time. I didn’t enjoy the singing and all that sort of thing on the team bus that you get with amateur rugby anyway. Since 1996 when rugby became professional the game has changed drastically. Thanks to funding from the Rugby Football Union we were ahead in terms of fitness and nutrition – you could see it when the English boys toured with the Lions in 1997. Our level was so much higher and by the 2001 tour we had pulled away and that’s why in 2003 (when England won the World Cup) we were slightly ahead in terms of performance and fitness.
“Fine-tuning the players”
“By the 2005 Lions tour everyone had caught up. So now sides will get the edge through skill development and game understanding. This has been the same with Leeds. We had to reach the required physical level and we have. The next stage of our development is fine-tuning the players and their all-round games to maximise performance. Being a professional means just that, you’ve got to make sacrifices and all the best players do it.”
Back provides a great example of this with a story about his former England team mate, Jason ‘The Fun Bus’ Leonard.
“When we turned professional the England players had to bring all our food in each week to get weighed, show how much we’d eaten and have all kinds of tests. We all brought cartons of things in but Leonard came in with two dustbin bags full of tins and things he shouldn’t have been eating.
“Sacrifice and determination”
“When he was asked how much alcohol he had during a week he said 24 pints and the nutritionist assumed that was three or four a night and he said ‘No, 20 pints on Saturday night and four at lunchtime on Sunday to top up!’ But all credit to Jason because he realised he had to change in the professional era and he went on to be England’s most capped international forward of all time.
“It’s this kind of sacrifice and determination we are striving for at Leeds.”
If everyone at the club puts in as much effort as Back, part two of his masterplan will be a success and Leeds can push on and become an established Premiership side. Failure and excuses don’t appear on his CV.
Pictures: David Lindsay
Editor’s Update: Since this interview Neil Back has left Leeds. But after he attained promotion he kept the team in the Premiership the following year despite a very tight budget.