“What do you want to do when you’re older?” The teacher demonstrating the use of the word ‘aspiration’ picked out the 11-year-old with the shock of blond hair near the front of the class in the Coventry primary school who had hoped not to be noticed.
“I want to play for England at rugby, sir and drive a Porsche 911 Turbo,” Neil Back said and everyone laughed. “Then and there I decided to prove them all wrong,” Back says - and he’s certainly done that.
Dreams come true
He did become a rugby legend. He did get his Porsche. And that day in the Coventry classroom some 35 years ago had a lot to do with making those dreams come true.
Today at 46, Back is an MBE and a successful author, businessman, coach, TV/media pundit, brand ambassador and charismatic after dinner speaker for Champions (UK) plc.
And he can look back on a career that includes three Rugby World Cups, the never-to-be-forgotten 2003 World Cup win, 66 England appearances, 16 tries and the distinction of being the only England forward to kick a drop goal in a test match.
He also made history by becoming the oldest ever test Lion, playing for Sir Clive Woodward in the 2005 New Zealand tour at the ripe old age of 36.
Back may have finally retired at the end of the New Zealand tour after an illustrious 17-year first class playing career, but he has remained a dominant figure in his sport and is causing a stir with his new biography The Death of Rugby, written 14 years after the first volume of his memoirs, called Size Doesn’t Matter.
While that chronicles Back’s years with Nottingham, Leicester and England, as well as the British & Irish Lions 1997 and 2001 tours, the new book is what he describes as a tale of triumphs, heartaches and broken promises.
However, the title of the book largely refers to a traumatic period in Back’s life, starting in 2011, when he joined the Rugby Lions club as a director of rugby as part of an ambitious plan to guide them back to the top flight from the fifth tier.
Despite winning every game in their first season en route to automatic promotion, Back, his staff, players and many businesses weren’t paid. New owner Michael Aland filed for bankruptcy and the RFU relegated the club to tier nine.
Back made his England Schools debut against Australia in 1987 and his senior debut against Scotland in 1994, joined Nottingham RFC in 1988 and two years later began an 18-year career with Leicester Tigers, first as player then coach, winning 339 caps and scoring 125 tries as a forward - a club record.
Ironically, at 5ft 10in he was once regarded as too small for a flanker and wasn’t selected regularly for England until 1997, by which time his speed, skill and tenacity were there for all to see.
Last game for England
His last game for England was the epic 2003 World Cup final against Australia and soon afterwards he became Leicester’s player/defensive coach. He finally retired from playing in 2005, but remained a Leicester coach until becoming head coach of Leeds Carnegie in 2008. In his first year Leeds were promoted to the Premiership, where they remained for the next two years.
Following Leeds, he turned down a DOR job at a Premiership club to take on that role at The Rugby Football Club (2011) Ltd. In 2012 he joined Edinburgh Rugby’s coaching team. Seven months later he stepped away from rugby.
Read the full interview in the November/December issue of Sports Insight magazine.
You can download it for free here: www.sports-insight.co.uk/news/download-nov-dec-2015-issue-of-sports-insight-magazine