FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: Between an English rock...

Chris Rea explains how the virtues of Leicester's No 8 have stood the t est of time
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"What's the best way of making contact with Dean Richards?'' I asked John Allan, Leicester's much put-upon secretary. "Try speeding down the M1,'' came the reply. For someone who had just recently been clocked going faster than light down the A1, this was not an option, but I realised that tracking down Leicestershire's most famous traffic cop and England's most capped No 8 was not going to be an easy job.

And even when you've collared your man, the last thing he wants to talk about is himself. He's far more interested in others, the sort who, according to his chief constable, would never dream of abusing the privilege he enjoys as a sportsman of international repute and whose pastime so frequently wrecks the week's duty roster. "Never once has he failed to make up the time he has lost through playing rugby, even though his colleagues are more than happy to cover for him.''

Richards is also the sort of chap who will obligingly turn out in the midst of all his other commitments for his local police team and play his very large heart out for them. The company formed to raise funds for Leicester's first-team squad depends verylargely on the pulling power of the club's star players like Richards whose precious time could be more profitably spent ploughing his own furrow. Yet, if ever there is a conflict between self-interest and club benefit, the club wins every time. "He is,'' Peter Wheeler says, "the ultimate team man."

If this view of Richards seems curiously at odds with the image of someone who sits quietly in a corner of the dressing-room flicking through the match programme while the other forwards are banging their heads on the wall, and whose absences from scrummage practice were so conspicuous that his team-mates felt compelled to send him a formal invitation to attend the next session, it is simply that Richards is a non-conformist.

The very fact that he has chosen to ignore the edict forbidding players to turn out for their clubs the week before an international is evidence of that. Furthermore, his attitude is easy enough to deduce from the way he plays his rugby. There is not a reputable coaching manual in existence which would endorse the Richards guide to No 8 play, but throughout his illustrious career he has obstinately defied all attempts to turn him into a conventional stereotype. "What they see is what they get. If they like it, fine by me; if not, it's too bad.''

There have been occasions when England selectors haven't liked what they have seen, most controversially when they dropped him from the final stages of the World Cup in 1991. The seeds of that particular decision had been sown the previous summer when England's tour to Australia had ended in a record defeat by the Wallabies in Sydney. Despite the 40-15 scoreline it had not been a humiliation, the most glaring difference between the sides being in the back row where England had no response to the pace and precision of the Australians' high-powered loose trio of Willy Ofahengaue, Tim Gavin and Simon Poidevin. By contrast, England's ponderously predictable manoeuvres were mercilessly hacked down. It left an indelible mark on Geoff Cooke's mind and when the decision was taken to change the tactics for the World Cup final, Richards's fate was sealed.

He was deeply upset by the experience although he would never admit as much in public. But what relevance, he wondered, had Sydney in June to Twickenham in November? If Cooke is unrepentant about England's switch of strategy, there have been times since then when he has questioned the wisdom of omitting Richards. "You only have to look at the record books to realise how much better England are with Richards than without him'' says Tony Russ, Leicester's director of rugby. "It is impossible to exaggeratehis impact both physically and psychologically. He is one of the few players capable of changing the course of a match.''

Richards did exactly that at Murrayfield three years ago when he came on late in the game as a replacement for Tim Rodber and, in the space of a few minutes, had revived his nation's flagging fortunes. In 1991, on the way to England's Grand Slam in Dublin, he also did it his way, the pack rallying round his inspirational driving.

Richards's two greatest assets are his phenomenal grappling strength and his almost unfailing instinct for being in the right place at the right time. Quite how he does it, designed as he is as if by a committee and an inebriated one at that, remains a mystery to many. "When England play without him,'' Russ says, "their back row has a habit of running around like headless chickens. But, in football parlance, Richards is the player who can put his foot on the ball and force the opposition to play at thepace he dictates.''

There have been times, when England's superiority has been so marked, that Richards's contribution has scarcely merited a mention, but when the call goes out in a crisis it is Richards who almost invariably answers it. Which is why it is inconceivable

that England will go to the World Cup in South Africa this summer without him.

If, as many believe, the imbalance in England's back row will be exposed during the course of the next couple of months, then it is Richards's position which could be most vulnerable to selectorial change. "But that would be crazy,'' Russ said. "He shou l d be in the side no matter what and if there are changes to be made it should be on the flanks.'' In common with many, Russ believes that there should be a blend of light and shade in the back row "It is absolutely vital in the modern game to have a spec ialist open side, a genuine flyer who can also create, link and distribute.We had the situation last season when England picked Neil Back and then sent him to the bottom of the rucks while a prop forward stood out in the three-quarter line.''

The additional pace and superior ball skills of a player like Back, combined with the muscular presence of Tim Rodber and complemented at the coalface by the authority and control of Richards would undoubtedly give England a dimension they lack at present.

Richards himself will not be drawn into the debate. He'll be winning his 39th cap at Lansdowne Road on Saturday and will be 32 this summer, but he considers that he is as fit now as he has been at any stage in his career. It is one thing, however, to en t ice him on to the running track or to convince him of the value of plyometric drills, but never will he be persuaded to embrace the present fad for psychological testing. There is no room for it in his philosophy. He is an intensely shy man who protects his privacy and that of his family. He knows what he likes and likes what he knows, which is why he is never happier than when he is playing for Leicester at Welford Road.

The feeling is mutual and when, in the Tigers' annual game against the Barbarians last month, Richards scored his 100th try for his club, there was a standing ovation lasting fully two minutes. It was impossible not to be moved by such a spontaneous display of deep affection. "You realise,'' said a Leicester member, "that Deano is a folk hero in these parts.'' And, as he trundled back to take up his position for the restart with that distinctive shambling gait - "He's a walking bloody miracle.''