Richards joins Quins' quest to restore order

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The Independent Online

A cynic might think it entirely appropriate that Dean Richards, the great shambling bear of the English game, has joined Harlequins, the great shambles of the English game, on a three-year contract as director of rugby.

A cynic might think it entirely appropriate that Dean Richards, the great shambling bear of the English game, has joined Harlequins, the great shambles of the English game, on a three-year contract as director of rugby. This cynic might also point out that as the old Leicester folk hero's current club, Grenoble, are all but certain to be relegated from the top division of the French Championship, he should respond to the prevailing atmosphere at the Stoop Memorial Ground, given Quins' own disappearance through the trapdoor 10 days ago.

But appearances can be deceptive. When Quins unveiled Richards yesterday - and my, he takes some unveiling - they did so with the air of determined assurance that might have spared them their present predicament had they been able to summon it on the pitch over the last eight months. In fact, the London clubpresented an impressive united front. Richards was flanked by Mark Evans, the chief executive, and Andre Vos, the club captain. At the risk of tempting fate with so early a prediction, they should win next term's National Division One title by a distance.

Evans, who has relinquished all coaching duties in order to concentrate on the role he was initially appointed to perform five years ago, confirmed that the club's major sponsors and corporate partners were staying put.

He also said that 1,200 season ticket holders had already paid for renewals, many of them at last season's prices. "They could have paid £100 less, but they have donated the difference to the club as a demonstration of support," he said. "They've been fantastic, quite honestly."

While he declined to comment on speculation that Andrew Mehrtens, the former All Blacks outside-half, would be signing in the near future and that Will Greenwood, the World Cup-winning centre, would be taking over the coaching of the backs, Evans reported that the vast majority of the 2004-05 squad would be with the club come September, when the glamourless trips to Sedgely Park and Otley kick in.

The five players definitely leaving - Roy Winters, Andy Dunne, Jon Dawson, Andy Reay and Karl Rudzki - were going anyway, having announced their intentions some weeks ago. The rest, including the coveted wings George Harder and Ugo Monye, are expected to stick with it.

Richards, driven out of Leicester in a palace coup less than two years after delivering a second consecutive Heineken Cup and a fourth successive Premiership, has not had the easiest of rides since. Grenoble are bottom of the Championnat, having lost 14 of their last 15 games and become entangled in a full-scale players' revolt. But with three bonus-point victories required to give them even a nominal chance of surviving - their opponents are Bourgoin, Perpignan and Stade Français - the 41-year-old Midlander is well out of life in the Alpine foothills, however good the food might be.

"I've received a few phone calls, to say the least, from Leicester people in respect of my decision to become a Harlequin," admitted the former England No 8, who would have spent much of his playing career laughing in the faces of the pastel-shaded London side. "But I'm keen to take on this challenge. Things change, don't they? Twelve months ago, I was wondering whether I would ever go back into rugby - whether I wanted to go back into rugby.

"The Grenoble job wasn't easy but it gave me a fresh perspective. I'd like to think I can use that experience to help the club make an early return to the Premiership."

It has not been a particularly comfortable week for the Quins management. A couple of dozen members of staff have lost their jobs, budgets have been revisited and key players have had to be reassured. "There has been some significant pain," Evans admitted. "But while the financial situation has changed, there will be no slash-and-burn approach. We will not put at risk the long-term development of the club."

Meanwhile, Northampton have secured the signature of the extravagantly gifted Carlos Spencer, who once competed with Mehrtens for the New Zealand No 10 shirt. The 29-year-old Auckland Blues stand-off has committed himself to a three-year stint at Franklin's Gardens, where he will replace Paul Grayson, now a full-time coach, and Shane Drahm, who has shifted allegiance to Worcester.

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