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Monday, 27 May, 2002, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Winning via the Back door
Neil Back during the Heineken Cup final
Did Back go too far in his desire to win?

When is a cheat not a cheat?

Neil Back woke up on Monday morning to newspaper headlines that were all about his gamesmanship rather than Leicester's second consecutive Heineken Cup final win.

Back had deliberately knocked away a Munster put-in in the dying moments of Saturday's showdown, denying the underdogs a possible try-scoring opportunity.

Neil Back during the Heineken Cup final
Back's actions took gloss off a fine win
Referee Joel Jutge missed the infringement and seconds later blew the final whistle on a 15-9 Leicester win.

But the arguments were only just beginning. Was Back guilty of serious foul play? Was this modern sport at its worst - when a desire to win spills over into blatant cheating?

Back himself was utterly unrepentant.

"This game is all about little edges - particularly in finals - and doing what you can to win," he said.

"That was a very crucial scrum, and I did what I had to do to ensure a win for Leicester. I am not a cheat and I would be very upset if anyone accused me of being one.

"What I did was part of the professional game. I am sure that other back-row players have done it in the past."

Others were not so sure. BBC Sport Online was inundated with angry emails from rugby fans - and not just ones from Munster - who felt Back's actions sullied Leicester's triumph.

Set in the context of the club's whole season, the incident takes on a different hue.

There are those in Wales who will tell you that the last-minute penalty with which Leicester beat Llanelli in the Heineken Cup semi-final came as a result of the referee being conned at a scrum.

And when Tim Stimpson came to take the kick, he did so from five yards further on from the infringement - crucially, as it transpired, because his match-winning kick bounced off both post and crossbar before going over.

Earlier in the year, London Irish's Brendan Venter claimed that Leicester's success was down in part to their willingness to bend the rules to the absolute limits.

Leicester supporters have heard it before. Such gripes, they will tell you, are the price you pay for success. Manchester United get the same treatment from rival football fans.

There is no doubt that Back cynically broke the law. What is open to question is how serious an offence it was.

Leicester coach Dean Richards
Richards does not believe Back did anything wrong
If spotted by referee Jutge, the incident would have resulted in a penalty. So was it any worse than pushing someone in the line-out or lying on the ball in the rough, something which happens several times a game?

Rugby is a game which has historically turned a blind eye to several unsavoury practices.

While attitudes have begun to change in the era of multi-angle television replays, an exchange of blows between rival front rows can still be laughed off as nothing but a spot of fisticuffs.

Examine more closely the dark arts of scrummaging, and Corinthian notions of sportsmanship begin to look almost laughable.

Leicester coach Dean Richards, whose own playing style could euphemistically be described as no-nonsense, knows as well as anyone that what the referee cannot see he will not penalise.

"Is what Neil Back did any different from the way Peter Clohessy scrummaged?" he asked.

"I would say not. The choice made by Neil was part of the winning process. If you cast him as a cheat, than everyone who gave away a penalty on the field is a cheat too."

Degrees of gamesmanship

Richards was being slightly cute. Claiming you have done nothing worse than be spotted doing what others have got away will not get you very far in a court of law.

There are degrees of gamesmanship, sure. Claiming a catch in cricket that you know you haven't made is a greater crime than not walking on a skinny nick to the 'keeper.

And winning a Formula One race by having your team-mate pull over on the line to let you past is less edifying than a straightforward win.

It's hard to deny that Leicester deserved their cup win, Back's sleight-of-hand or not.

But, equally, Richards and his players should not be surprised if, in the eyes of many punters, the gloss has been taken off what should have been a weekend of celebration for the team.

Did Neil Back's actions make him a cheat?



8330 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

Heineken Cup final

Matt Dawson

Parker-Pen final


See also:

25 May 02 | European
25 May 02 | European
27 May 02 | Funny Old Game
12 May 02 | Formula One
Links to more Rugby Union stories are at the foot of the page.

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