Neil Back’s admission
27th August 2002 By Munster Rugby
JUST WHEN the average rugby-cheering punter in this quarter of Ireland was putting the earth-shattering disappointment of last May in Cardiff behind them…
JUST WHEN the average rugby-cheering punter in this quarter of Ireland was putting the earth-shattering disappointment of last May in Cardiff behind them, the villain of the piece (well, from a Munster perspective) went and opened his mouth about it.
As highlighted on this very website last week, Leicester and England flanker Neil Back told English media last week that, “In a way I wish I hadn’t done it.
“I must be honest, because I don’t like people thinking I’m a cheat. I don’t think I’m a cheat, but this has undoubtedly tarnished my reputation and that is disappointing. I’d hope people would evaluate me over my career and not just label for one incident.”
Ah yeah, Neil, I see where you’re coming from. Getting so horridly caught in the act at the pivotal moment in the showpiece match of northern hemisphere club rugby, I can see why you wouldn’t want to be remembered for just that.
After all, there’s a glittering club career to reflect on, never mind all those England and Lions caps. Throw in a few English championships and a few International championships and one sees a little smidgen of evidence as to why his career should not be remembered for one indiscretion.
Only it ain’t that straightforward, Neil my good chap.
Contentious incidents in sport are a little like those weeds that cling to your trousers if you’re the type that occasionally slashes a ditch. You don’t want them there, you want to be rid of the little buggers, but try as you might you just can’t shake them off.
It’s a little like Neil Back illegally scooping the ball when Munster have put in from a scrum with, let’s say, 60 seconds or so left on the clock in a European Cup Final. Ah shucks, only that scenario did unfold, and Neil Back, whatever way he likes to put it, did cheat.
Alas, a little perspective may now be called for. If David Wallace had committed the same offence at the other end of the pitch with the scores reversed, chances are a statue of the Munster flanker would already be erected in the middle of Limerick.
Fickle lot us sports fans, but as was vouched for by more than one supporter leaving the Millennium Stadium back in May, a Munster hand in a Leicester scrum such as Back had in Munster’s would have earned the protagonist the freedom of the province.
But Neil Back must face up to the reality that, at least on one side of the Irish Sea, his reputation as a sportsman has been severely tarnished, although fans would admit that his stature as a competitor is undiminished, as he remains one of the finest such battering rams in his position anywhere rugby is played.
On reflection, the disappointing, if hardly surprising reaction by Back’s colleagues in defence of his actions still leaves a little sour taste in the gum shields.
His boss Dean Richards saw nothing wrong or illegal about what his player did, while his captain Martin Johnson was ‘moved’ to comment: “Things like that always go on, just that the TV cameras never see them.
“If it gives an advantage to your team, obviously you’re going to say ‘great,’ and if the opposition do it you won’t be happy, but these things happen – just not always in the last minute of a major final.”
What seems to be forgotten in all of this is that what Neil Back did was wrong, and that regardless of who commits such indiscretions, no one but no one should be happy to see such actions taking place, especially by professionals, viewed as role models by their adoring young support.
Back also admitted that not only did Leicetser receive mail from Ireland which expressed a little more than a hint of dissatisfaction with his role in Munster’s defeat, but there were also such criticisms mailed to the Tigers from persons within Leicester itself.
“It was a bit hurtful to me and upsetting to my wife Alison,” said Back.
“If I thought there was a positive way of redressing what happened I would certainly think about doing it because I don’t like to think there are people out there who, because of one incident, regard me as a cheat.”
But there are Neil, and quite a lot of them, evidently not just in Ireland too. One imagines Diego Maradona does not like to be considered a cheat. Nor Ben Johnson or Richard Virenque for that matter.
And while the contexts of the latter pair’s cheating differs from the English man’s offence, Neil Back is more likely to remembered for that seminal moment in club rugby history than all those great days and great performances that have littered his long career. Why? Because, here in plain English for all to read, he cheated.
All the while, the Heineken Cup sits in display in Welford Road. Ah well, like another beverage, I’m not bitter. Okay then, maybe a little bit …