The nation expects, and so does local World Cup-winning rugby legend Neil Back who talks heroes, hopes and legacy to David Johns as England’s class of 2019 looks to emulate his champions of 2003
Rugby fans will be glued to their TVs as the World Cup gets into full swing this month ¬– and England supporters will be hoping that the men wearing the red rose can match the heroics of the famous 2003 winning team. Among those cheering loudest will be England and Midlands legend Neil Back who was a key member of the side that claimed the sport’s biggest prize.
Neil spoke exclusively to Birmingham Living just before the 2019 tournament kicked off in Japan – the first time the World Cup has been held in Asia. And just like the player we all know and love, he was direct and to the point with opinions and predictions.
“For the first time since 2003, England look like they have what it takes to go all the way,” he said. “Every World Cup brings back memories of that great time I had with the team when we won the trophy in Australia, but this time it really feels like this group of England boys can match what we achieved. And the tournament is unique this year because of the venue – the first time the World Cup has been to Asia.”
Neil says that as a player in such a high-pressure competition all you want is for the fans, the media and the nation as a whole to get behind you and support you. He explained: “The England coach Eddie Jones is the only person who selects the team – no one else, not the so-called experts or the media. So we should always support who he picks and respect his judgement. If we all come together, everyone is confident and moving in the right direction.”
As well as unity, leadership is also a must-have if England are to succeed in Japan, says Neil. “I’m not just talking about the coach and the captain. You need many leaders in the team, not just one or two. In 2003, Martin Johnson was the captain but if you look at the players, there were multiple captains and leaders.
“Today’s England have a front five who can all handle the ball, the team has a blend of power and subtlety in general play and the kicking game – but leadership is crucial when the going gets tough. And there will be ups and downs and big tests during the course of a tournament when so many games are played so close together. In an intensive competition like the World Cup you really need two squads that are capable of winning because you have to make changes along the way.”
Home interest in the World Cup is not all about England. “Wales are ranked number one in the world and they are a huge danger to England,” said Neil, who also placed New Zealand and South Africa among the favourites to hoist the famous Webb Ellis trophy.
Born in Coventry, before moving to Solihull and now living in Leicester, Neil remembers being inspired to take up rugby as a kid after watching the exploits of top players. His hero was Jean Pierre Rives, the French powerhouse forward who earned legendary status as ‘the blood-stained’ hero of Les Bleus. “With his mop of blond hair always streaked in blood, I felt like I was just like him – I had a lot of blond hair back then I promise you – and he had a similar build to me, being a bit short! I was always prepared to put my head in where it could get hurt, so I always had blood streaming down my face.”
Neil chose rugby over cricket which he also played to a high level as a youngster and even though his whole adult life has revolved around rugby, he still has a passion for ‘the gentleman’s game’. He said: “I went to the Ashes test in Birmingham and even though the result ended up not being what we wanted, the city was buzzing because of the cricket. And what about England winning the cricket World Cup, that was just awesome.”
English success, whether in cricket, rugby or football, are what inspires the next generation, and Neil has seen this happening first-hand. After 25 years in the game as a player and then coach, he now devotes some of his time to visiting and coaching in schools. “Unlike in my days growing up, the tech age is providing so many other things kids can do – they can play sport now on a computer screen if they want to. But despite all this, there are some great junior rugby clubs in the Midlands and success by England at the World Cup can only encourage and build on this.”
Neil is a regular speaker at hospitality and other sporting events and his lifestyle these days means he can now devote more time to his family. “I know every husband says it, but my wife is truly amazing. We’ve been married 21 years this year and she has had to sacrifice so much to my rugby career. Six years ago I decided it was time to really prioritise my family and kids.”
With a daughter in her second year at university and a son who has just started at Nottingham Forest’s football academy, Neil says he tries to make sure they have every opportunity to achieve their goals and create their own paths in life. “My heroes are my mum and dad who gave me all the love and support and opportunity possible,” he said. “I want the same for my kids.”
Neil’s personal motto is “never fail through lack of effort” which we think is the perfect mantra that England’s players should adopt to bring home the ultimate prize at this month’s World Cup.
BACK2FITNESS: Back2Fitness is Neil’s three-phase, 12-week programme created for men and women whose fitness has dropped off due to other commitments such as work, family or injury. Details at http://www.back2fitness.co