England's mana from heaven

As England prepare to meet Australia tomorrow, Steve Bale talks to the indispensable Dean Richards RRichardsDeaoRichardsRichardssomething very interesting about Dean Richards
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The Independent Online
One day England really will have to learn to cope without Dean Richards, but for now he remains the nearest thing to indispensable. So much so that with him they have a chance of going all the way and winning the World Cup; without him they would be hard-pressed to go any further by beating Australia in tomorrow's quarter-final in Cape Town.

So when the manager and captain were implying in Durban that the absence of England's most-capped No 8 from the pool matches against Argentina and Italy was some sort of opportunity, in the sense that the team had to show they were not reliant on this one man, they were probably pulling our legs. With Richards, England find it hard to lose; without him, they find it easier than they care to contemplate.

Just as well, then, that the hamstring injury that at one awful stage threatened to put him out of the tournament healed in time for him to play his usual inspirational role when England finally put some decent rugby together, against Western Samoa. This is not just an outstanding player; this is England's talisman, their lucky charm.

Not that he would ever say so, despite the fact that he has not played in any of England's defeats since they lost the first match of the 1991 World Cup to New Zealand. "It's a fallacy," he said. "We have a side capable of playing without Dean Richards. It's a case of finding the right balance. I think I've been very lucky, and you have to remember I've been in some losing England sides as well."

Richards, a Leicestershire PC, is 32 next month and has been around the England team for nine years, so he is talking about rather ancient history. He may - he does - find the endless acclamation excruciating, but the common denominator in every one of England's more recent defeats has been that Richards has been missing and sorely missed.

In 1994, when they lost to Ireland and South Africa, he was injured. In 1993, when they lost to Wales and Ireland, he had been dropped. By the time they lost the 1991 World Cup final to Australia he had been dropped. Since he figured in that defeat by the All Blacks, Richards has been on the winning side in all 15 of his games for England.

That said, it is for his performance that he is so admired, and for the astonishingly galvanic effect he has on others around him. "Immense," says Jack Rowell, the manager. "He is a special man." "Awesome," says Will Carling, the captain. "I don't understand much about forward play but I do understand that we have one of the most influential players in the world game."

Quite why this should be so is a puzzle. Richards has the gait of a drunken sailor, a shambling appearance as far removed from the asceticism and athleticism of the modern international as it is possible to get. Yet he has uncanny tactical sense and phenomenal skill, as well as something less definable: an aura best described by the Maori word mana.

Wayne Shelford, the former All Black captain, had it. Gavin Hastings, the Scotland captain, has it. Dean Richards has it in abundance. "When I first had a game in Leicester's first team with Dean, I said to him it was an honour and privilege to play with him," Tony Underwood, his England team-mate, said.

Underwood then had a dusty response. "He told me to shut up and stop being stupid. Anyway, it's not that you feel exactly insecure when he isn't playing, but when he's there you feel quite invincible.

"It would be easy to say it was thanks to Dean's return that we had an outstanding win over Samoa, and although there were other factors there's not much doubt he was a huge one. Ever since Jack took over last year he has been trying to find a suitable combination so that if Dean isn't around they can cope. You might not think he's found it yet."

The evidence in support of this was presented in England's lamentable start to this tournament. Richards arrived in South Africa with his pulled hamstring which, so it was said daily, needed two or three more days to heal. In the end it took 17, and in the interim England eked out victories over Argentina and Italy which, if nothing else, showed that after all they could not do without him.

Inevitably, Richards tells it differently. "The lingering hamstring took longer than it should have done and there was a time when I was worried I might have to go home. First it should have been right for the Argentina game, then it should have been right for the Italy game.

"When I came back against Western Samoa I was lucky inasmuch as I came into a side that had a lot of people who didn't have many caps and aspired to greater things, which gave them a little bit more encouragement, and they showed a bit more commitment because of that. I don't think me coming into the side was the inspiration that was needed."

This is typical Richards, self-deprecatory to the end. There was a time when all he had to do was stand up to satisfy Geoff Cooke, Rowell's predecessor as manager, of his fitness to play for England, and it was not until the '91 World Cup - when Richards had already been an international for five years - that a different reality intruded.

He had gone through the pool matches without impressing Cooke that he was properly fit for such a tournament but his exclusion, when it came three days before England played France in a quarter-final in Paris, was so profoundly shocking that even Cooke did not quite believe what he had done.

It ought to be the great calamity of Richards's rugby life, but four years on he affects only mild concern. "It's so long ago I can't remember. I had a beer with Geoff Cooke and we chatted it through, no problem at all. I can't remember being too disappointed."

The strange thing is that in hindsight it was less of a surprise than it seemed at the time. Richards had played his greatest rugby on the 1989 Lions tour in Australia, when he reached a peak of fitness he has never repeated. A shoulder injury caused him to miss virtually all of the next season and when he was about to make his comeback in 1990, a year before the World Cup, he had no qualms about describing the training schedule as a nightmare and wondering whether he could or would fulfil it.

This is in keeping with his reputation as a reluctant trainer, as a guy whose idea of exercise is having a game of rugby, not preparing for it. Tony Russ, the Leicester coaching director, once said: "Let's face it, Dean's attitude to training is appalling." Funnily enough, Russ said this in genuine admiration and affection.

In any case, the man himself refutes his reputation. "If the truth be known, I quite enjoy my training - but only when I do it as I want to and not as part of a unit," he said. This goes to show that the Richards we all know and love is actually not the real Richards at all. For instance Chalky White, the erstwhile Leicester coach who introduced Richards to the big time, with a debut at Neath of all places, always said he was a much more profound character than he ever let on.

"I enjoy a game of rugby wherever it is, whether it's New Zealand, South Africa or even Mandela Park," Richards said. The latter is a public open space back home in Leicester rather than a sporting monument to another great man who also happens to be in South Africa at the moment. You could say that Richards is English rugby's living monument but he wouldn't thank you for it."