Dean Richards had just taken a first bite of his bacon roll when someone asked him, ever so politely, whether he would like ketchup. Crikey, what a question. There was an ice-cold silence as the man at the heart of the Harlequins Fake Blood Affair – a scandal over a single capsule of theatrical red stuff that not only led to one of English rugby's fabled figures being branded a cheat and kicked out of the game for three years but also left two medics in serious danger of being struck off, rocked one of the country's grandest clubs to its core and caused unprecedented ructions in the sport's governing body – considered his response. Then, Richards laughed. Phew. Relief all round.
The union game has seen precious little of the former Leicester No 8 – the Great Shambling Bear of England and Lions renown – since the late summer of 2009, when, during a highly successful spell as Quins' director of rugby, he admitted making an illegal substitution during a Heineken Cup quarter-final with the help of a willing player and some dodgy crimson purchased from a joke shop near Clapham Junction. If the act was bad, the attempted cover-up was worse: when the truth eventually emerged at a disciplinary hearing in Dublin, there was wreckage everywhere.
Yesterday at Twickenham, no more than a long drop-kick from the scene of the crime, he reappeared in public, having served his time and moved north-east to Newcastle, where he will attempt to guide the inaugural Premiership champions back into the top echelon of the domestic game following their relegation last May – precisely the trick he pulled on behalf of Quins in 2006. Happily, he was pretty much his old self: articulate, authoritative and amusing in equal measure, if a little chastened.
"I have huge regrets," he admitted. "I think I'm essentially the same person in terms of personality and ambition and passion, but I now know where the boundaries lay and I'd never do the same thing again. How quickly did I find myself missing rugby when I started serving my ban? It took me about 20 minutes. When something has been your life for more than 20 years, you miss it straight away, don't you? Now I'm back, I'm loving every minute of it: the banter, the camaraderie, the team spirit.
"During the first year of the suspension, I watched only one game of rugby: a Harlequins-Wasps match at Twickenham. Since then, I've been watching every week – not because I was planning a return, but out of pure enjoyment. There were times when I wondered whether, if things went well for me away from rugby, I'd take on another role in the game: directors of rugby are under so much pressure these days and I remember seeing how some of them reacted to that pressure and thinking 'Was I like that'? But in the end, I just love the smell of the changing room."
As Richards neared the end of his banishment, more than one club sought his services. "I did have choices," he confirmed. So why Newcastle, a club who pretty much bought the league title in 1998, started to slip down the rankings when rival clubs found ways of matching their spending power and were relegation fall guys-in-waiting long before the trap door finally opened beneath them. When Richards took over at Quins, an immediate return to the Premiership was all but guaranteed. This is not the case with the Tynesiders.
"I met Semore Kurdi (the Newcastle owner) and liked the person I saw," he explained. "I liked his vision and I decided to buy into his ambition. When I agreed to join the club they were bottom of the pile and there was every chance they would go down, which turned out to be the case. But I am as excited by their potential now as I was then and it's certainly my aim to re-establish Newcastle as a stronghold of English rugby. There will be challenges, but I've taken this on with a very clear mind."
On Sunday week, Newcastle open their account in the RFU Championship against Bristol, their fellow promotion contenders, before mixing it with the likes of Doncaster, Moseley and newly-promoted Jersey. It will take some getting used to for a club who, not so very long ago, could field Matthew Burke, Mathew Tait, Jamie Noon, Toby Flood and bloke by the name of Wilkinson in the same back division.
"There are two ways of doing this," Richards said. "One is to go through the season treating these games simply as jobs that have to be done, of showing a lack of respect when we turn up at these places. The other is to get out there and enjoy our rugby." There was no doubting the Great Shambling Bear's preferred approach. He has missed too much rugby not to treasure it now, wherever it is played.
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