Rugby Union: Richards draws telling picture

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The Independent Online
WHEN the South- West won the Divisional Championship, it drooled with significance - though this had little to do with the ADT trophy finding a new home. It was actually the Midlands players who were punching the air after drawing 18-18; their opponents stood there almost motionless and certainly emotionless.

No, it was because in this rousing finale to a competition that is so essential to England selection they chose before it had even finished we were probably witnessing the swansong of Dean Richards as an international candidate. It is dangerous and possibly heresy to say so, but then even the man himself seems to accept as much.

If England's most-capped No 8 played all the time as he did on his own Welford Road turf on Saturday the manager, Geoff Cooke - who with his coach, Dick Best, was watching the other divisional match - would never have left him out, as he has taken to doing over the past 15 months.

But this time it is Richards who has left himself out by declaring his unavailability for a long new year's weekend training in Lanzarote and Cooke has made it clear that, by adding this sin of omission to his failure to make the team who beat South Africa, he is not helping himself.

Which appears to bother the one-time colossus of English forward play not a jot. 'If they pick me, then I'll play,' he conceded. 'But having put so much time in over the last 18 months to two years, I have to devote more time to my wife and family. But I'll always be there if they need me.'

In other words he wants to play on his terms, and as training has never been a favourite pastime the notion of five full days of it on a volcanic island in the Atlantic is deeply antipathetic. To think he is only 29, still a spring chicken by England forward standards.

After this game at Leicester even Ben Clarke, who has succeeded him for England and faced him for the South-West, admitted: 'He did have a superb game, didn't he?' Richards, the Midlands captain, led his pack from the front, at once a titanic figure and a beacon light. The Midlands forwards were markedly the better and he profited with a first-half pushover try.

Then, at the very end of the second half, with the South-West locked in defence again after withstanding two more attempted pushovers, Richards called John Liley to kick the equalising penalty with the final kick of the match when a try would have won it. 'I was amazed,' Stuart Barnes, the South-West captain, gasped.

It was an un-Richards-like piece of safety-first, perhaps reflecting the fact that neither try nor penalty would have deprived the South-West of their title. Strange, none the less. 'It was the last play of the game and our chances of going over were pretty limited,' Richards said. 'They were wheeling every scrum. We just would not have had an opportunity to push them over in a straight line.'

'Obviously,' Barnes said, 'the Midlands were happy for a draw.' Obviously, too, they were happy to have held the South-West but, such had been their superiority, they should never have reached the last gasp still needing the oxygen of a score.

The greatest compliment you could pay the West is that, without much ball, they had hung on for all the world as if they were Bath playing Harlequins in a cup final - though Barnes and his fellows have not shed their first loyalty. 'I still don't believe it's a step up,' he said. 'Because there are only three games, it doesn't seem like a great achievement.'

That the selectors should announce their squad before it had even finished only added to his scepticism and could even be said to be mildly insulting to those who thought they were still playing for places. Not that it would have made any difference to Richards, who had already opted out, or to Neil Back, the 5ft 10in Leicester flanker in whom Cooke now has scant interest but whom Richards describes as 'one of the best open sides in the world'.

Back was his usual creative self for the Midlands, constantly on and using the ball but ultimately knowing that whatever he did would not be enough for John Elliott, the England selector in attendance. If that sounds like a counsel of despair, I am afraid it is.

Back apart, the Midlands' problem was what to do with the ball when they got it, as they so often did. South-West had a wide advantage in class but even more in the precious gift of pace. The lightning strike for the first try, scored by Jonathan Callard, perfectly reflected this, Barnes giving one of his two try-scoring passes despite being held and surrounded by defenders.

Alas for Barnes, the other created a try for the Midlands as he floated the ball towards Guscott only for Frank Packman to intervene and Stuart Potter to score. Thereafter, the South-West dug deep to fashion a try for Andy Blackmore after great skill and enterprise on the wide outside by the superbly mobile Clarke. But for Liley's last kick, it would have been decisive and neither the Midlands nor the South-West deserved that.

Nor, come to that, does Saturday's referee Fred Howard deserve to have been booted off England's international panel. The official reason is that that he is 'favouring' one leg, a nonsense since he has had the same knee problem throughout the eight years since he took the first of his 20 Tests.

He has at his fingertips (or in his inside pocket, anyway) his written assessments for the season, averaging 7.59 (maximum nine), compared with 7.12 for David Matthews, who has displaced him and is also a member of the Liverpool Referees' Society.

Howard says he has been inundated with support and has been told by Rugby Football Union officials unconnected with his deselection that the other home unions are 'incredulous'. He believes he is the victim of a personality clash and is considering retirement. It is a joke, and a very bad one at that.

Midlands: Tries Richards, Potter; Conversion Liley; Penalties Liley 2. South-West: Tries Callard, Blackmore; Conversion Callard; Penalties Barnes, Callard.

MIDLANDS: J Liley (Leicester); F Packman (Northampton), S Potter, I Bates (Leicester), H Thorneycroft (Northampton); R Angell (Coventry), M Dawson (Northampton); M Linnett (Moseley), J Olver (Northampton), D Garforth, M Johnson (Leicester), S Lloyd, P Shillingford (Moseley), D Richards (capt), N Back (Leicester). Replacement: R Cockerill (Leicester) for Olver, 34.

SOUTH-WEST: J Callard (Bath); N Beal (Northampton), J Guscott, P de Glanville (Bath), S Morris (Gloucester); S Barnes (capt), R Hill (Bath); C Clark (Swansea), K Dunn (Wasps), V Ubogu, N Redman (Bath), A Blackmore (Bristol), J Hall, B Clarke, A Robinson (Bath).

Referee: F Howard (St Helens).

(Photograph omitted)