Deano works on a happy return

Premiership newcomers are familiar faces - and the head man has many points to prove
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The Independent Online

When Leicester used to play Harlequins at the Stoop, Dean Richards would stalk the touchline like a bear with a particularly sore head. He hated losing to anybody, but the thought of being beaten by the multi-coloured outfit from London was simply too much to bear. Richards, an England and Leicester icon as player and coach, has been in charge at Quins for a year but, like John Prescott playing croquet, it still seems an incongruous fit.

The ex-bobby on the beat and No 8 who sometimes resembled a one-man pack insists that since leaving his beloved Welford Road, life has never been sweeter. Before joining Quins he had a year at Grenoble which, on the field, was not a resounding success. Off it, he had a great time. "We went skiing twice a week, we ate regularly in our favourite French restaurant and I liked the laissez-faire approach." Just don't mention the rugby.

Before Quins were relegated, Mark Evans, their chief executive, met Richards at an airport in France and lured him back to the game in England. Quins did not avoid the drop, but Richards had signed a three-year contract and he was not looking for a get-out clause.

"I'm committed to the club and these are very exciting times," he said. Indeed, his loyalty is such that when the Rugby Football Union sounded him out about the new post of élite rugby director Richards, although tempted, thought better of it and withdrew his name from the list to be interviewed.

Last season Quins dominated National League One and suffered just one defeat, to Exeter. "That really pissed me off," Richards said. "The whole experience was very good for us. Everybody wanted to beat us and we had to perform week in, week out. There was a passion and a will to win. At Otley we won in the last minute. I don't think Quins would have done that before."

Richards admits that after returning from France he did not immediately feel at home. "We bought a house in deepest, darkest Surrey and it unnerved me a bit, because it was so far removed from anything that I had been used to. But we have settled in, the neighbours are great and in many ways the two years I've been away from Leicester have been the best two years for me and my family. It opened up a new life for us."

The manner of his departure from Welford Road, abrupt and savage, still rankles in the Midlands. David Clayton, the managing director, had the task of asking for the return of the club's Land Rover and laptop. Richards returned his club tie, and when Leicester asked if they could name a bar at Welford Road after him he said no.

"I don't miss Leicester at all," he says. You suspect that Leicester miss him. Under Deano the Tigers won everything, but when they hit a rocky patch they became frustrated at what they saw as his intransigence, a refusal to make changes. Although the most commercially successful club in the Premiership (they have just announced a record turnover of £15 million), Leicester have never been quite the same without Richards. One day, they say, they will have him back. They have a long wait.

In Will Greenwood and Tony Diprose Quins have lost a couple of high-profile players to retirement, but for their return to the big time they have recruited a dozen, including Stuart Abbott from Wasps and England and Hal Luscombe from Newport and Wales. There are also Nicolas Spanghero and Paul Volley, both from Castres.

Volley was in the form of his life for Wasps before they inexplicably allowed him to move to France, but things seem to have worked out well for both the flanker and his new guv'nor. When Grenoble played Castres Richards and Volley would have a chat over a beer. When Quins were looking for a new captain for the new season Volley made sure Deano had his telephone number, and the two met up in Toulouse to seal the deal.

"I nearly bit his arm off," Volley said. "I have a lot of respect for him and he has given me the opportunity to achieve something special. At Wasps we won everything, at Castres we were always mid-table. Some players never achieve anything in their whole professional careers. The professionalism at Quins is so much greater than in France."

Richards says at Grenoble he inherited the squad and coaching team. At the Stoop, he makes what he calls the key choices, and Volley falls into that category.

"We're taking a huge step up in class," Deano says, "but I think we're in a no-lose situation, because everybody expects the newly promoted team to finish in the bottom two. Our squad are strong enough and good enough to prove people wrong." We will have an indication at Twickenham on Saturday, when Quins open the double-header against London Irish, which is followed by Saracens against Wasps.

The Irish, who had an excellent time of it last season under the coach Brian Smith and captain Mike Catt, are committed to an attacking, running game. "No matter how much analysis teams do they will find it very difficult to defend against us," is how Catt sees it. "Our ambition is to make the play-offs."

Sarries against Wasps has probably come a week too early to mark the return of Andy Farrell and Lawrence Dallaglio, although both are said to be close to peak fitness. Farrell, the huge signing from rugby league, should have made his debut 12 months ago, but a toe injury kept him out of the entire campaign. A couple of days ago he came through his first contact session. Alan Gaffney, the Sarries coach, is thinking of playing him at No 6. Dallaglio - at the Premier-ship launch Volley complained that his former Wasps team-mate refused to give him a hug because Volley was wearing a Harlequins jersey - is back in full training after having a metal plate removed from the ankle he shattered on the Lions tour of New Zealand last year. His goal is to make the World Cup squad with England, as an automatic selection rather than a replacement.

Dallaglio, of course, had found that his retirement from international rugby was a tad premature, and Jason Robinson is displaying similar withdrawal symptoms. The Sale captain - on Sunday the champions visit Leicester, whom they outplayed in the Premiership final - announced: "Part of me doesn't like how England are going and what's been happening to them."

Does that mean we will see him at full-back for England in the autumn internationals? "Put it this way, if your country was going to war and needed you, you would have to answer the call."

England are going to war against New Zealand at Twickenham on 5 November, and before then Rob Andrew, the new supremo who starts his job on Friday, might well be tempted to give Billy Whizz a buzz.

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