Ragamuffin man quells romantics

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The Independent Online
From the moment England brought back Dean Richards you could sense this kind of a match coming. You knew right away that their favoured policy was one of attrition.

The situation created by Scotland's exciting surge to a Grand Slam suited Will Carling and his men perfectly. During the weeks of preparation it is unlikely that they ever once thought of putting broad brushstrokes on the canvas, the flourishes Jack Rowell keeps promising. Victory, however grimly achieved was all that occupied them.

Fundamental necessities were immediately evident in Richards' selection. Grind them down, set-piece domination. Scrum, line-out, scrum, line-out. Hard-nosed efficiency.

On Saturday morning on the radio old Scottish internationals spoke with reverence about Richards. Respect for him was everywhere. The embodiment of England's preferred style, his presence was considered less talismanic than technical and as the game progressed he confirmed this to be an accurate analysis.

A curious thing about England's large No 8 is that he looks the very antithesis of an athlete. Broad but flat-shouldered, he is no body beautiful and sometimes appears to be joining in play as an afterthought. It cannot be imagined that sprinting figures much in his curriculum. Nobody better represents the old ideal of rugby being a game for all shapes and sizes. In Richards' case mobility does not come into personal assessment. Essentially an old-fashioned type, he hardly defines an image for the next generation.

But even at the comparatively advanced rugby age of 32 one aspect of Richard's game remains absolutely certain. Once he gets hands on the ball it must be like trying to dispossess an alligator. As for philosophy, Richards is not one to be influenced by romantic considerations. "You have to play to your strengths," he said.

The strongest part of Richards' game is finding ways to slow things down, on this occasion importantly to deny Scotland the quick ball that was central to their aspirations and the possibility of a spectacle.

There is plenty of support for the belief that England instinctively are never keen to release their backs, that the potential for suddenness will always be held back by genetic inhibitions. "We are moving forward," Will Carling insisted, again showing some irritation with critics who suspect that talk of a more expansive approach is just that. A cover-up in public relations.

Understandably, I suppose, Scotland did not take kindly to the policy England adopted and which Richards represented so critically. It reminded me of a comment made to the late Bobby Moore shortly after the England football team he led won a narrow but quite comfortable victory at Hampden Park. "You go up there with those little white shorts tucked up around your arses and we play you to death. The result? Scotland nil England one!" Moore smiled. "Something like that," he said to the irate Caledonian.

Carling's response was somewhat similar. "It was always going to be an extremely difficult match," he said. "With all that had been said and Scotland favourites, we were desperate to win."

Not that there was a hint of desperation in the way Richards went about things. Even in such tense circumstances he applied himself thoroughly to the conservation of energy. Never run when you can walk. Take breathers

To see Richards winning the first two line-outs without having to leave the floor and gaining possession aggressively at restarts was discouraging to the Scotland and their supporters.

However, and some old-timers found this odd, there was something about Scotland's arrival on the scene that indicated a lack of conviction. They looked too cool for their own good, displaying little of the pent-up passion remembered from the day they put paid to England's Grand Slam ambitions.

A bit extravagant perhaps, but perhaps it was all down to knowing that Richards was out there. The ragamuffin man. Shirt outside his sagging shorts, socks around his ankles, directing, guiding, snaffling possession, his broad beam protruding from the base of England's scrum. Not a pretty sight, but rugby was never meant to be entirely the prerogative of artists.

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