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Aviva Premiership Comment
Why has Neil Back been rubbed out of history?
Hugh Godwin
January 5, 2013
Leicester's Neil Back protects the ball, Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints, Zurich Premiership, Welford Road, Leicester, England, September 25, 2004
Former Leicester favourite Neil Back is the most prolific tryscorer in the history of English league rugby © PA Photos
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Players/Officials: Neil Back | Mark Cueto | Steve Hanley | Tom Varndell
Tournaments/Tours: Aviva Premiership

Try scorers in England's top division from start of leagues in 1987 (at January 3, 2013):

  • Neil Back 77
  • Steve Hanley 75
  • *Mark Cueto 75
  • Daren O'Leary 73
  • *Tom Varndell 70
  • Paul Sackey 68
  • Jerry Guscott 67
  • *Tom Voyce 66
  • *James Simpson-Daniel 63
  • Ben Cohen 59
  • Josh Lewsey 58
  • Adedayo Adebayo 57
  • *Geordan Murphy 57
  • Rory Underwood 55
  • Iain Balshaw 52
  • *Tom May 52
  • *still playing in Aviva Premiership

There has been a lot of comment of late over Mark Cueto equalling Steve Hanley's record for Premiership tries. The pair of Sale wings - Hanley retired in 2008 due to a back injury, Cueto is still a going concern - have each scored 75 times in the Premiership.

With a fair wind and notwithstanding the Sharks' dire position in the Premiership, the record should fall to Cueto very soon. And, by the way, Tom Varndell is not too far off surpassing Hanley, either, with 70 Premiership tries for Leicester and his current club Wasps at the time of writing.

Only one problem: why has Neil Back been rubbed out of history? You remember him? 'Backy', king of the line-out drive at Leicester, master of nosing his way over the goalline while Martin Johnson and the ABC Club kept the opposition forwards at bay.

There was a great story a few years ago that a well-known bookmaker stopped taking bets on Back to score a try as the well-informed were making a killing on him. As the mention of Cueto, Hanley and Varndell above demonstrates, the odds are normally led by wings not flankers. Tigers supporters would pile their money on Back at double-figure odds and clean up.

As Harlequins' captain Chris Robshaw said recently, "you always knew when Leicester went to the corner, they would come away with points". And that's what Robshaw wants Quins to be feared for: scoring from every kind of position. The point being that the record try-scorer in the English top division is not Cueto or Hanley - it is Back, who scored 77 times for Leicester between 1990 and 2005.

The distinction is that the 'Premiership' began in 1997, concurrent with Allied Dunbar's sponsorship. But why this should effectively expunge the records from the 10 seasons of league rugby in England that preceded it escapes me. At the risk of a pun where Back's bonce is concerned, is this splitting hairs?

No, to me it's the same as the argument in football over quoting statistics from the Premier League from its inception in 1992 as if the old Division One never happened. Yet if you ask Liverpool or Manchester United how many league titles they have won, they don't start the calculation from 21 years ago.

Ditto the Champions League. If United look with pride on their recent successes in that competition, they would rather set up home at Anfield than ignore the glory night in 1968 when they won the European Cup. One was the forerunner of the other and deserves to be bracketed with it in terms of records.

Now, a certain amount of historical revisionism is a good thing. In a recent documentary the actor Hugh Bonneville was pretty disgusted to find a museum to Stalin in Georgia unfettered by any insight into the Soviet despot's reign of terror.

As far as I can tell there is no malign intent by rugby's commentators constantly referring to Hanley and Cueto but missing out Back. This is not an attempt to foist a Pol Pot style Year Zero on the game.

And, yes, there was a certain delineation in the forming of the Premiership. It was given impetus by the game going open in 1995 and introduced stuff like the salary cap and promotion criteria though not straight away (the cap started in 1999).

It did however suit the sponsors and broadcasters - both in 1997 and now - to view the Premiership as a new beginning. When, really, it was little more than a change of name: a rebranding of what had started in the 1987-88 season as the Courage Leagues.

If they had wanted to make it a proper clean break they should have got everyone to re-qualify for the top division in 1997.

Instead the participants in the Premiership's 'first' season were just the same clubs from the 1996-97 season before, plus Richmond and Newcastle promoted from Division Two. Varndell told me recently that he was keen on breaking the career record - as well as the one for a single season, which the Wasps wing has gone to the trouble of checking was 17 by Richmond's Dominic Chapman.

 
"If they had wanted to make it a proper clean break they should have got everyone to re-qualify for the top division in 1997."
 

Hanley was modelled on the Jonah Lomu prototype, but he could run round as well as over you. It is true he is best remembered outside the North West of England for being clattered by the equally outsized Craig Quinnell in the Wembley meeting won by Wales in 1999.

Lacking the elephant gun that commentator Bill McLaren recommended for bringing Quinnell down, the then 19-year-old Hanley approached the rampaging Welshman with neither the plan nor the body position required and was bounced onto his backside, suffering a broken arm in the process. But Hanley, true to his statistics, also scored a try on that one and only England appearance, taking an inside line off Mike Catt at fly-half for a short run-in.

I don't think either Hanley - whose beaming smile remains evident at the Salford City Stadium, as 'Stan' still works for Sale's commercial department - or the graceful Varndell would wish to gloss over Back's achievements. It may be they simply do not realise.

Wikipedia records Hanley thus: "He scored 104 tries in 191 games, 75 of which were in the Premiership which remains a league record." Er, not quite.

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