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Last Updated: Monday, 15 March, 2004, 10:48 GMT
Back out-flanked by passing years
By Tom Fordyce

Neil Back escapes a tackle against France
Age: 35
Height: 5' 10"
Weight: 202 lbs
Position: flanker
England debut: 5 Feb 1994
England caps: 66
Time moves quickly in the sporting world.

Three and a half months ago, Neil Back held the William Webb Ellis trophy aloft, a key figure in England's World Cup triumph.

But he has now announced his retirement from international rugby, joining fellow World Cup winners Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard and Kyran Bracken in stepping down from the game's biggest stage.

The writing was on the wall when the Leicester flanker was surprisingly left out of the England squad for their opening Six Nations match.

And although he was recalled to the bench for the defeat against Ireland, Back has decided he does not want to commit to England's summer tour of Australia and New Zealand.

At 35 years old, he has become the fourth high-profile casualty of coach Clive Woodward's sentiment-free rebuilding process.

Back always did have to battle to prove himself to the men who picked England teams.

Watching him during the World Cup campaign - the cornerstone in defence, the key link man in so many breaks - it seemed inconceivable that he could ever have been considered too small to be effective in the international arena.

But it was only when Woodward took over as England coach that Back began to be chosen on a regular basis.

Until that point he had been the victim of Jack Rowell's "big is beautiful" strategy, missing out in favour of the six-footers at a time when size was everything.

It did not seem to matter that he was performing wonders on a weekly basis for Leicester. The dogma was in place, and that was that.

Fortunately for Back, Ian McGeechan was rather more liberated in his thinking.

McGeechan picked Back for the Lions tour to South Africa in 1997 despite the fact that he was not holding down a regular England place.

Neil Back holds the World Cup trophy
Back scaled the heights in Sydney

By the end of that trip the argument was won: here was a player of the highest international class.

It was the start of a golden period in the flanker's career.

In 1998 he was named RFU player of the year, and the following season was voted the first players' player of the year after scoring 16 league tries - more than any other player.

In combination with Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio, he formed the best back row England have ever had.

Sixteen England tries tells a tale of a forward whose mobility was a constant threat, even if a quarter of those scores came in one match against the Netherlands.

There was even room for a drop goal against Italy, further proof if any were needed that Back's range of skills was wider than the average forward's.

Back's dedication in training means that he is as fit now as he was five years ago. He certainly feels that he has been playing as well for Leicester this season as ever, where he has also taken on a coaching role.

Two years ago Back found himself out of favour for England and managed then to get back into the first XV.

But there is a big difference between Woodward picking a 33-year-old with two years to go to the next World Cup, and sticking by a man who will be 39 when the competition is up for grabs once again.

Recently Back expressed his interest in replacing Johnson as captain as he looked to continue his England career.

Now he will be watching them at home on the television - and one could understand if he does so with a heavy heart.

Back 'shocked' by axe
09 Feb 04  |  Six Nations
Back dropped by England
08 Feb 04  |  Six Nations


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