For a man vilified for his now notorious Backhand in last season s Heineken Cup final, when he deliberately knocked the ball from the hands of Peter Stringer at a Munster scrum, Neil Back seems remarkably sanguine and unruffled by the opprobrium subsequently heaped upon him. You sense he quite thrives on it and that it is a badge of honour to be secretly cherished. It is clear that he believes it was, and continues to be, an incident blown out of all proportion. Claims it might have cost Munster victory are, he insists, preposterous given that the Irish province had huffed and puffed but done little with an abundance of possession.
I have said it before. If it had been a boxing match the game would have been stopped well before then, he said. I could reel off a thousand incidents every week in every club, in every game, across the country which, to me, are the equal of what I did. We know that Neil but, really, no regrets? He pauses for a moment. Because of what happened since then perhaps I do regret it. But if it had happened in the first half of the game rather than the last minute, we would not be talking about it now. Apart from the odd piece of hate mail, he says he has not had any problems. Then Back turns the situation on its head. In the high-stakes, winner-takes all environment in which the Leicester and England flanker operates, blame actually lies with Stringer himself. Excuse me? After England won the grand slam in Dublin, I was talking to a few of the Munster boys, including Ronan O Gara, over a couple of pints and, of course, the subject came up, Back said. They weren t having a go at me. Their feeling is that Stringer was at fault because Lewis Moody had done the same thing to him a minute previously, and he hadn t learnt from it. He should have.
For those who need reminding, Back s action at a scrum on the Leicester 22 in the final moments of the game cost Munster a prime attacking position. It was missed by the referee and officials, and the advantage was lost. Overnight it became a cause c l bre, rugby s equivalent of Maradona s hand of God in the 1986 World Cup when England were beaten by Argentina.
Pressed further, it is obvious Back feels enough time has been expended on the subject and that we should move on, to talk about the reason why this issue has been dragged up again, the fact that Leicester and Munster meet once more tomorrow at Welford Road in the quarter-final of the Heineken Cup.
It ll be a huge, huge occasion, two vocal sets of supporters, a marvellous atmosphere, he said. They are a bloody good side. They played poorly at the Millennium Stadium (in last year s final), their players will tell you that. And you can forget about any advantage from England winning in Dublin. New occasion, new game, we start from scratch.
Physically and mentally the Heineken Cup is the most demanding cup to play in. That s why training today (Thursday) was on the edge. It was so intense I had to take five minutes out afterwards.
The lure of a hat-trick of Heineken Cup victories drives Leicester on. They want to win every game of course, but away from the bread and butter of the Zurich Premiership, this is what really matters. It is why Back motors on, with a hunger, attitude and sheer professionalism that has long been his and Leicester s hallmark, qualities that remain undiminished by his advancing years.
For a man who loves fast, expensive cars and who has an Aston Martin on order, Back is ticking over nicely. At the age of 34, and with many miles on the clock, he may have reached the veteran stage, but his desire and enthusiasm have never been stronger.
He has always been meticulous in his preparations and devotion to fitness, doing the right thing, eating the right food, his body the proverbial temple. People say I am anal. Maybe I am, he said. My conditioning is an important factor. I have never felt better or fitter. I am doing personal bests in everything. If I was plateauing out, I would feel concerned, but that is not the case. I am on top of my game, and on top of my form. This is my fifteenth season and I have no thoughts of retiring.
Finally it s back to where we started. One last question. Would he do it again? I play to win, I am a competitor, he smiled. There s your answer. By Mark Souster - The Times.