NEIL BACK insists that if Leeds Carnegie complete a Great Escape mission at Northampton Saints tomorrow, it will represent the most spectacular ever Premiership comeback.
It’s been a tortuous campaign for Carnegie, whose self-declared aims of pushing for the top-six after the highs of last year soon came to haunt them following a disastrous first half of the campaign when they lost their first nine games.
That Carnegie – a point adrift of Newcastle Falcons – still have a slight chance of safety represents a minor miracle in itself according to head coach Back, whose future will come under the microscope if Carnegie lose out at Saints, with big question marks surrounding his position.
Back, who deflected talk of his own future to concentrate solely on Saturday’s game, said: “If we were to survive, it would be the biggest comeback ever in Premiership history.
“If you think back towards Christmas, we were 11 points adrift at the bottom of the table and now we’re (almost) level on points going into the last game.
“To stay in the Premiership with the squad we had (last year) was incredible as we were spending half of what others were and to do it with a game to go was phenomenal.
“This year, we’ve reduced the squad by six and essentially spent the same amount of money and we’re still in it.”
Back, who has one year left on his Carnegie contract, is expecting no favours whatsoever from Saints in his side’s do-or-die clash – with the fourth-placed hosts still not yet mathematically assured of a play-off spot – and has cast aside any talk they may take it easy tomorrow with their eyes on future weeks.
And if Carnegie do lose out, he isn’t expecting a lifeline from Cornish Pirates either against Worcester in their forthcoming Championship play-off final after Warriors snatched victory from the jaws of defeat at the end of their semi with Bedford Blues on Sunday, which tantalisingly almost earned Leeds and Newcastle a shock relegation reprieve.
Back said: “We absolutely have to be at our best to give ourselves any chance.
“Northampton are European (Heineken Cup) finalists and that’s not by chance. It’s through hard work, commitment and the quality of their squad.
“They will be fully focused on what they need to get against Leeds, which is at least a point. They’ve got a quality squad and lots of depth, there’s no such thing as them fielding a weaker team and they want momentum into two finals they will hopefully be involved in.
“Whether they needed a point or not, you know they’d turn up.
“Funny things happen in sport and we want to be one of those funny stats this weekend. I remember earlier in the football season, newly-promoted Wolves beat Man United. It can happen.”
On the possibility of some divine intervention from Pirates, who won’t be promoted if they beat Worcester, he added: “That scare will probably ground Worcester fully in terms of knowing where they are and what they plan to do.
“I don’t expect them to come unstuck against Cornish Pirates, even allowing for the strong showing that Pirates have shown over this season.”
While many would consider it expedient for Carnegie and their fans to question the virtues of the current promotion/relegation system, given their lowly status, many well-respected union voices have been critics of the present format for several years, with the fact that three of the four sides involved in this year’s Championship play-offs don’t fulfil Premiership entry criteria apart from Worcester, adding fuel to their argument.
And Back admits the current system is a massive handicap to lesser-ranked Premiership sides such as Carnegie.
He said: “I think, 100 per cent, the Premiership would be strengthened if you had however many clubs knowing they would be competing in the Premiership for three years.
“The problems with those at the bottom, not sure of Premiership status is that to attract the best players, it’s difficult because they want to play in the Premiership.
“Financially, people and sponsors wanting to get involved with the club are less willing to invest, as they want to invest in a brand that’s in the top competition. When you don’t know, it’s difficult and it’s certainly a problem at Leeds because we’ve never spent anywhere near the salary caps and that brings problems with it.
“If it was the case at Leeds, I know we’d get the finance in to spend at least the salary cap, as other teams consistently do.”