Harlequins 21 Gloucester 31: Richards aghast as namesake runs riot

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The Independent Online

Dean Richards, a wonderful No 8 for England and the Lions, missed fewer tackles in a decade than Andrew Mehrtens, wonderful in very different ways during his record-breaking career as the All Blacks' outside-half, let slip at the Stoop as Harlequins played their first Premiership match on home soil - or rather, played half of it - since disappearing from view in the late spring of last year. It was not, therefore, especially surprising that the great shambling bear reacted to this defeat as though someone had pinched his pint. Richards knows the things that keep a team in the top flight and does not count abject capitulation among their number.

There was not the merest whiff of surrender about a former Quin, the visiting scrum-half Peter Richards, who badly pranged his shoulder in the initial exchanges yet stayed on the field to make the decisive contribution to a victory more comprehensive than the scoreboard let on. Therein lay the difference between the sides. Gloucester showed considerable strength of character in immediately consigning a desperate opening 40 minutes to the trash can and upping the ante after the break. The Londoners, on the other hand, displayed all the resilience of a depressed lemming.

Had the first of these Richardses noticed anything during the first half, which his side ended 16-6 to the good, to hint at the collapse to come - a subsidence that allowed the second Richards to complete an individual try from 50-plus metres that was flabbergasting for several reasons, only some of them directly to do with the scorer? "Not at all - that's the strange thing," Quins' director of rugby admitted. "Am I annoyed? Hugely so. There was a certain amount of naivety out there." And the tackling, or lack of it? "Mehrtens wasn't the only one, so I'm not pointing any fingers, and anyway, I haven't seen the video. Phone me on Monday and I'll give you my opinion."

Anyone making that phone call will be risking a perforated eardrum.

No coach ever picked Mehrtens for his cast-iron defence. In his great days, the New Zealander had people like Josh Kronfeld and Michael Jones to do his tackling for him while he got on with kicking zillions of points and making the Jeff Wilsons and Christian Cullens look even better than they were, which was pretty damned sensational. On Saturday, there were occasional flashes of his special talent - the long touchfinders that unfailingly bounced the right way; a pearl of a penalty from miles out that gave Quins a 10-point interval lead. But the powder-puff side of his game ultimately counted for more, underlining the fact that he had not played a really serious game of rugby since leaving New Zealand well over a year ago.

It was indeed true that he was not alone in his aberrations, but the idea of signing a rugby aristocrat is that he sets a tone for the great unwashed around him. The tone Mehrtens struck in the second half had more of the Harrison Birtwistle than the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart about it, and he will need to produce something a whole lot more acceptable at Wasps this weekend. Assuming he is selected, naturally.

The likelihood of Gloucester failing to select their scrum-half for any of their tougher matches is now as remote as the sun itself, for at the weekend the inexhaustible Richards delivered perhaps his most complete performance since moving to Kingsholm from Wasps at the start of last season. His harum-scarum style may scare the pants off those more conservative-minded members of the England hierarchy who are understandably suspicious of his core half-back skills, but in terms of raw energy, he is something approaching nuclear.

According to Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Gloucester, there is a balance to be struck between improving Richards' positional craftsmanship and encouraging him to continue playing it as he sees it. "Peter mustn't forget he's a fantastic rugby player," Ryan said. "There are areas of his game we can make better, but he's made a lot of progress since this time last year. Back then, all he had was himself. Now, he is showing signs of developing his management skills, his game understanding. He's also matured as a person, which tends to happen with age. If it didn't, we'd all be hanging around the nightclubs."

Richards is not obviously the sort to hang around anywhere, being a 100mph kind of chap, but he acknowledged after Saturday's proceedings that a decision to put the brakes on his social life was paying dividends. "I never thought I was any worse than anyone else but once you get a reputation for yourself, it's difficult to shake it off," he said. "I'm fairly dull now, I think."

Was there a particular moment when the penny dropped? "When I snuck on to the England bench for the game against Samoa last November," he replied. "I thought: 'This is a nice place to be. I'd like to stay here.' Once you're given the opportunity, motivation comes easily."

If there is a more motivated individual in the Premiership right now, his identity is not obvious. Certainly, Harlequins could have used most, if not all, of the many virtues Richards brought to the party.

If they fail to harness them over the next half-dozen games they could easily find themselves bottom of the pile come Christmas. And that, as they know from bitter recent experience, is no one's idea of a good time.

Harlequins: Tries Jones, Keogh; Conversion Mehrtens; Penalties Mehrtens 3. Gloucester: Tries Richards, Azam, Forrester; Conversions Walker 2; Penalties Walker 4.

Harlequins: T Williams; D Strettle (G Duffy, 33), H Luscombe, S Abbott (Duffy, 25-33), S Keogh; A Mehrtens, S So'oialo (D Care, 64); C Jones, J Hayter (J Richards, 8), R Nebbett (M Ross, 72), N Spanghero, S Miall, A Vos (C Hala'ufia, 64), P Volley (capt), N Easter.

Gloucester: O Morgan; J Bailey, R Keil, A Allen, M Foster; W Walker, P Richards (R Lawson, 74); N Wood (J Forster, 58), M Davies (O Azam, 56), C Califano, M Bortolami (capt), A Brown (W James, 67), P Buxton (L Narraway, 62), A Hazell, J Forrester.

Referee: R Maybank (Kent).