Neil Back Exclusive: 'In 2003, our strength was our environment - England must get that right in France'

Neil Back was one of England's World Cup winning heroes in 2003
©@lionsofficial / INPHO

When arranging to chat with Neil Back, trying to compare the past to the present almost feels ridiculous. 

Twenty years ago, England were preparing to head 'Down Under' for the Rugby World Cup with many tipping Sir Clive Woodward's side as the tournament favourites. At that time, they were regarded as the best team on the planet.

Momentum was behind them. Winning was an all too familiar feeling. England had notched 15 victories from 16 matches going into the competition and that form didn't fluctuate as they went on to famously clinch the biggest prize in the sport.

Two decades on though, and it couldn't be more different. As Back's old boss said this week, England head into France 2023 in a 'sorry state'. Just three wins from their last nine Test matches - a run which includes a shock defeat against Fiji - makes for grim reading and if anyone had any hope of Steve Borthwick's current side replicating the past glories of '03, you could certainly excuse them of living in a fantasy world.

"Yes, in a word," Back says when asked whether he is surprised by the decline of an England side that reached the World Cup final four years ago.

"I say that because if you look at the talent we have got, there is no question we have got the players. I think a few of our headline players have not played well for whatever reason and only they can be truly honest about why their performances haven't been where they need to be. 

"The players have got a duty to develop that environment so they can turn things around. They have got to create that environment in partnership with the coaches. You couldn't point the finger at any one person for the decline."

'Creating an environment' becomes a running theme during our conversation and the element of 'trust' and 'ownership' is something which was crucial to England's success in 2003, according to Back.

On November 22nd of this year, Back and all of his fellow World Cup winners will reunite for the first time for one special night at the Eventim Apollo, Hammersmith to mark the 20th anniversary of their historic victory over Australia.

Throughout the evening, they will be sharing their own personal highlights and memories but one factor which underpinned that immortal group was the relationship between the players and coaching staff.

"We had a coaching team that weren't suffocating and gave complete ownership to the players," Back explains. "We had a tremendously experienced leadership group and the majority of players had played a lot of games together for England.

"We sort of created an environment where everyone literally did all they could to be the best they could be. When we crossed the paint onto the field, we had a mentality and a feeling that we were unbeatable and if things were not going to plan, we had a leadership group that would change the plan and adapt to what was happening and I think that was our strength.

"Through that tournament, it didn't always go to plan but we were able to change the plan and react on the field. We decided what we did to ensure we achieved our goals. Clive obviously signed them off but he created that environment and all the coaches and players brought into that.

"I don't know how the current squad are operating but it feels a bit cosy to me. There is no question that England have got some very talented players and they are a team that can go to this World Cup and win it but winning brings belief and confidence. Having won three out of nine under Steve, it is not a winning environment at the moment so that needs to change."

Earlier this week, England prop Dan Cole said the current squad are in France 'for a purpose' and revealed there is 'a trust' between players and coaches as they continue to develop a healthy team culture.

Considering what Back has been speaking about, Cole's words should provide a source of encouragement for those of an English persuasion.

The Leicester Tigers forward is also preparing to take the field at a fourth World Cup, as are Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes, with Borthwick's squad stacked with experience and Back hopes those particular individuals who have reached finals and gone deep in tournaments before can step up to the plate once again.

"We spoke before about the leadership 20 years ago," Back continues. "You just have to roll the clock back four years and a number of this squad were in a World Cup final. They know how to get there.

"We are on the favourable side of the draw so you'd expect us to get out of the group. Without question, on their day, England can beat anyone in the world but can they win games back-to-back? We will see. 

"I think we are also finding out a bit more about Steve at the moment. He is an international player, he's an England captain, he is very good coach but is he a great coach? We will see on that too."

As Back touched on before, Borthwick's tenure has only garnered three victories thus far and the former British and Irish Lion was quick to compare the record of the England head coach to his predecessor Eddie Jones: "If you look at Eddie's last nine games compared to Steve's, he had a slightly better record. Still not great, but he had the same wins as Borthwick but he had a draw [25-25 v New Zealand] but in those games, they played against South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia and France. That isn't the same as now.

"Steve came in and said under Eddie Jones, and I agreed with him, that in no individual area of the game were we the world's best and nothing has changed in that statement.

"Steve Borthwick and his coaching team, they have got some great characters in there, some great winners, some great role models so hopefully they are getting a strategy together.

"I know we lost against Fiji [England's final warm-up match], but I believe if we beat Argentina [on Saturday], and that won't be easy, we should go on to capture enough points over the next three games to get into the quarter-finals and we can go from there."

All eyes on Marseille on Saturday then, where England open their World Cup campaign against the aforementioned Argentina. The Pumas are an ever-improving side and they have more than enough quality to make life uncomfortable for Borthwick's men.

In 2003, England began by thrashing Georgia 84-6 and whilst the scoreline won't be anything like that on Saturday, Back places plenty of emphasis on getting off to a good start, with fixtures against Japan, Chile and Samoa coming after Argentina.

"The opening games are very important. It gets you up and running. If you lose that, it is going to be very difficult unless you're France or New Zealand because someone is going to lose that game [the two heavyweights kicked off the tournament on Friday] but whoever does lose it, they could go on and win it like South Africa four years ago.

"Like in the Six Nations or any competition, you win that opening game and you're up and running, confidence is up and you go into the next game with a bit of belief. After the Argentina game, I will have a different, more solid opinion about what England can do!"

When Back and his World Cup-winning teammates gather at the end of November to reminisce, by then, we will know who is the best team on the planet.

In his heart of hearts, Back hopes England can prove their many doubters wrong and emulate the great side of 2003 but to do that, they may need to refer to the past if they are to have a brighter future. 

"One of the differences between winning and losing was our mentality and that is as important now as it was then. All of these teams who are going out to the World Cup, they are full of talent, great players but it is their mentality that will separate second from first, the good or the great.

"Let's hope England can find a solution really quickly and get that right. How is that team going to be remembered? That is enough of a driver for anyone within that squad to change or make change, make necessary changes because it is about how you want to be remembered."

World Cup Winners: The 2003 England Rugby Squad Reunion is presented by Cuffe and Taylor.

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