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'Borthwick is a good fit... but it's going to probably be five years until Leicester are anywhere near competing at that top table'

By Liam Heagney

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Funny what you can pack in with Neil Back when the clock is ticking: His Rugby Lions misadventure, his uphill financial battle trying to keep Leeds in the Premiership, quitting coaching for business, the teething Steve Borthwick era at bottomed-out Leicester and the ousting of old pal Geordan Murphy from his position of power at Welford Road. Every topic chewed over coherently and neatly spat out the other end, all in the space of a brisk 13 minutes. Sweet.

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Back had popped up late on his Zoom with Rugby Pass, journalists on previous individual calls pushing their luck by always asking one last question. Were any of those last-gasp queries any good? “No,” chuckled the ex-England back-rower heartily while seated in a swivel chair in a sleek-looking office where the backdrop understandably includes a team picture from his greatest moment, the 2003 World Cup final triumph of which he was very much an integral part of. 

We won’t mention the stuttering England Class of 2021 or anything to do with the hot topic that is the selection for the upcoming Lions tour to South Africa. Back has already had his fill of those discussions, not only with his Thursday morning queue of various journalists but also in an appearance the week before on RugbyPass Offload in the company of Dylan Hartley and Ryan Wilson.

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Jack Nowell guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Jamie Roberts
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Jack Nowell guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Jamie Roberts

Instead, we just dive straight into the rough and tumble of some other topics and away goes the 52-year-old, hitting as many words in staccato fashion as he did breakdowns in a stellar playing career where Back won 66 England caps and five more with the Lions along with cabinet full of Leicester honours before embarking on a coaching career that he cut short in 2013 to go and watch his kids grow up and become reputable sportspeople in their own right, Liv representing England at underage hockey and footballing Fin signing pro terms with Nottingham Forest.  

“I had lots of chat about the Lions today, not the Rugby Lions,” said Leicester legend Back when asked about the approaching ten-year anniversary of his one season in charge at grassroots Rugby where he was sucked in by the financial promises of smooth-talking owner Michael Aland who never genuinely had the cash in the bank to support the grandiose notion of taking a club all the way up the pyramid and into the Premiership in the space of five years. 

Instead, the Lions failed to pay off debts, had their promotion to National League 2 South quashed and had to wait a year before they could re-enter the leagues in Midlands 5 West, the lowest rung of the ladder available to them. “I turned down a potential director of rugby at a Premiership club to do that job,” recalled Back, quickly getting into his stride.

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“It was a big decision. I have no regrets. It was a great learning experience for coaching and for leadership, management etc. Just disappointed by the individual behind it all financially and he is still operating out there across the world. I’m contacted frequently by other people he has scammed and not fulfilled his promises. But that (coaching) was a great experience because we were realistic about where we were, where we wanted to get to and how we were going to get there. 

“We thought we had done enough due diligence on everyone involved and effectively we played sort of 25 cup finals in a year because everyone wanted to beat us and we were able to win the league and the trophy giving a lot of the players on and off the field a great time. Hopefully, they were better players, better people after that journey. I certainly was a better coach, a better person after that journey. But the disappointment was we weren’t able to continue it.”

Asked if how it all disappointingly fizzled out was a contributory factor in his decision a year later to ultimately quit coaching in 2013 following a season assisting Edinburgh and Back swiftly swivels in his chair and does a quick rummage on a bookshelf behind before returning to the screen with his left hand armed and dangerous. 

“This isn’t an advert, you see the title of the book, The Death of Rugby. I wrote this second autobiography to write one chapter which was about Rugby Lions and that was to tell the story to the masses because if I wrote a book about Rugby Lions tier five in rugby no one would read it. I put it in a book where we talked about winning a World Cup and everything else. 

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“I’m not trying to advertise the book, it’s sold out over and over but I wrote that book to put it all down in black and white because that was the best way I thought I could get the story out there for the players, supporters and sponsors that were involved that year.

“The following year I joined a coaching team that was in the third year of their contract. I loved my time up in Edinburgh, would have loved to have stayed a bit more but it was clear that they had a change of thinking, the head coach and director of rugby were leaving so the whole team were leaving. 

“I sort of planned in good time to transition out of rugby because I had spent 25 years in senior rugby as a player and coach and I had spent so many years away from my wife and two kids. Now I am in business, the business roles I have got, I spend a lot of time away as well but my daughter is now 21, my son is 18 and I have spent the last eight years with them more than I have the previous 20. It’s all good. I’m loving life in business now using all the lessons I learned in sport.”

That included trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear at Leeds. Back got them promoted to the Premiership in 2009, helped them stay up the next season but it all unravelled in year three when the pressures of their meagre budget compare to the rest of the English elite became too much of a burden to survive.

“It was a lack of finance, Leeds,” he reflected, looking back on his time with a club who never returned to the Premiership and are now waiting to start back at National 1 level following their 2020 Championship relegation. “You look at the teams that have either gone down to the Championship from the Premiership who have come back up or the teams like an Exeter that have come up from the Championship and sustained that, they all had good finance behind them. 

“There have other things as well. Money can’t buy success and I don’t want to derail anything that (Rob) Baxter has done at Exeter but they had the finance there. Leeds, I spent three years there, got them up from the Championship, kept them up and then we got relegated in that third year.

“It was because I was given just £84,000 to recruit players so it’s the financing. It’s not the sole thing but you need to have it. We were budgeting that Leeds squad probably on 60 per cent of what other people were paying their players, so you just can’t compete when you are at that level.

“Take the top clubs now like Exeter, players will probably go there a one pound player for one pound but a club like Leeds, or Leicester where they are now, they have to pay more. They probably have to pay £1.30, £1.40 for a £1 player so your budget doesn’t go as far. That is the truth of it.”

Mention of Leicester brings us nicely onto the rugby subject matter that is closest to Back’s heart. He was a doyen when he played for them, Tigers dominating the Premiership and twice conquering Europe during a stay that began in the amateur era and crossed over into the cut-throat world of professionalism. 

That weight of glorious history has been a noose for Leicester of recent vintage, the club’s struggling present of two consecutive eleventh Premiership finishes a world away from the trophy-winning pomp of yesteryear, something that will be remembered in a few months’ time as a 20th-anniversary reunion of the 2001 European Cup-winning team is planned as long as the current lockdown restrictions are lifted.  

Back is a realist regarding the current situation and reckons the straight-shooting Borthwick is the sour-tasting medicine that Leicester badly needs if they are to challenge for trophies again. “Geordie Murphy inherited a vessel that was going in the wrong direction,” he said, referencing his old teammate who was thrust into the job as boss when Matt O’Connor was sacked one match into the 2018/19 season. Murphy himself has now been moved on, giving Borthwick free rein to yank the club from out of the doldrums. 

“Geordie slowed that acceleration in the wrong direction and his hard work prevented them from getting relegated which no one involved with Leicester wanted to see. But the time was right for Borthwick with the coaching experience he has gathered over the years – he is a good fit. He has come in and has made everyone at Leicester, including the supporters, be brutally honest about where they were when he came in because there was a lot of heads in the sand. 

“He made everyone understand we are not that great team that once was, this is where we are and then he gave a vision of where he wants to be and, most importantly, how are we going to get there. Now you can’t do it on your own, so he has put in the right leadership management, saying the right things and they have got a strategy to get there and he is being realistic. 

“In one of his first sessions, he took the training group off the pitch because they weren’t in his view training at the right intensity, training at the right standard. So the standards have been set, everyone knows that now, but it’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be two or three years to get to a point, probably five years until we are anywhere near competing at that top table.

“He doesn’t give any timeframe to anything but from what he has said, what the players say, what the different departments within the club at Welford Road and Oval Park say, they are all on one page now, they know where they were, how they are going, how they are going to get there and they are buying into it.

“He talks about working hard, but they have got accelerate that somehow because every club is moving on and working hard. He has got his job cut out but he has got a young squad with some old heads in there and they are working hard. I watched the game last week against Exeter. Over the last couple of years, I have watched a number of Tigers’ games and we would have imploded but they stuck in. 

“We went down to 14 men after 13 minutes, we lost another in the bin, we were 28-0 to the European and Premiership holders but they fought their way back and fought to the very end and got a bonus point try. The game ended 47-31 and we played with 13 men for 10 minutes of that, 14 men for 70 minutes of that (because of a red card), so we fought to the end and they are fighting hard. The fans will love that, that they didn’t give in.”

We’ll finish with his mate Murphy. Back reversed away from professional rugby coaching at the young age of 44, putting the demands of a young family first. Murphy turns 43 in a few weeks. Will the ex-Leicester boss now do a Back and seek out an alternative career or will he stick with coaching, an industry Back wholeheartedly recommends even though he opted out himself?

“One hundred per cent it’s an absolute joy,” said Back, the famed ex-Leicester forward, about coaching. “I loved my experience playing, coaching and business. There are lots of transitional skills between business and sport. An elite business is like an elite rugby team, they are looking for the fine margins. You have got to have leadership, you have got to have ownership and buy-in from everyone involved so yeah, it’s wonderful. 

“The rewards in football are greater but the risk there is far greater as well. Rugby has got a good balance. I don’t regret anything I have done. I have learned from every experience. Geordie is a relatively young coach. He will get another opportunity in coaching if that is what he wants to do or he might transition out into business himself because being a coach, you think playing is difficult in terms of time, as a coach it is 24/7, 365. 

“There is not a lot of time to switch off and Geordie has got a young family. I met up with him about a month ago now to chew the fat and he is in a good place. He has taken the time to take in a bit of fresh air and think about his future but if he wants to get back into coaching there will be an opportunity somewhere and I’m sure he will thrive. 

“This is the thing, he inherited a vessel that was not in a great place and he stopped the acceleration to the unthinkable [Premiership relegation for Leicester]. There’s no question about that but I believe the time for change was right. Borthwick is saying the right things, everyone involved with Leicester is saying the right things and they understand what they have got to do when they get there. I mean that is all you can ask. It’s now about consistent hard work every day.” 

    

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'Borthwick is a good fit... but it's going to probably be five years until Leicester are anywhere near competing at that top table'

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