The warhorse rides again

FIVE NATIONS Paul Trow assesses Dean Richards, whose England career resumes on Saturday; Jack Rowell has grasped the thistle and recalled a stalwart forward to uproot the flowers of Scotland at Murrayfield
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WHO says tradition in rugby is dead? One of the sport's longest- running rituals is due to be acted out for the umpteenth time on Saturday at Murrayfield. Nearly a decade after the first time it happened, an audience of millions will be treated yet again to the spectacle of England's selectors eating humble pie and recalling a player they desperately want to do without but simply can't.

As Scotland psyche themselves up for the contest which could yield a third Grand slam in 12 years, Dean Richards, the rock on which so many packs have been built over the past decade, has once more answered England's summons to arms. Surplus to requirements after last summer's World Cup, the 32-year-old Leicester No 8, a colossus in the eyes of team-mate and foe alike, merely shrugged his ox-like shoulders and got on with more mundane duties at Welford Road.

But the brave new world of all-running, all-singing, all-dancing rugby which Jack Rowell envisaged for his "new" England has taken four disappointing afternoons to be exposed as a false dawn. Deano and Old England are back in harness and the Scots, fresh from hard-fought victories over Ireland, France and Wales, know their toughest battle of the campaign is still to come.

Just ask John Jeffrey, the former Scotland flanker with whom Richards locked horns on numerous occasions and who once joined him in an impromptu soccer match in the streets of Edinburgh using the Calcutta Cup as the ball. "It's not difficult to see England's game plan," Jeffrey said. "They're going to keep it tight and play a kicking game. Richards will be a vital part of that plan, but in Scotland we couldn't understand why he wasn't picked well before this match. His name and Rob Andrew's used to be the first two we would look for when England picked their side."

Finlay Calder, another one-time Scottish back-row adversary, believes England were mad to discard him so hastily. "Without Richards, Andrew, Dewi Morris and Brian Moore, the backbone, England were always going to struggle this season," said Calder, who was also Richards' captain in three Tests on the triumphant 1989 Lions tour of Australia. "Now they have at least brought Dean back to give themselves stability in a vital position."

Calder, along with so many men who have played with or against Richards down the years since he began his international career with two pushover tries against Ireland in 1986, believes that his greatest asset is his ability to read the game.

Time and again, references are made to his knack of being in the right place at the right time, belying the impression that he is unathletic and slow about the field. "The talk is that Scotland are going to try to play a fast, wide game like New Zealand did in the World Cup semi-final, when it was felt that Dean was badly exposed," the Bath and England flanker, Andy Robinson, said. "The problem for Scotland, though, is that they've got to win enough of the ball to do that, and that's not going to be easy with Dean up against them."

His former England colleague Mickey Skinner feels that Richards' selection could actually have an expansive effect on England's performance. "I'm really pleased Deano's in the team because he will be brilliant at stopping the Scots, and his very presence will encourage his team-mates to be more adventurous than they have been of late," Skinner argued. "They will know that if what they are trying out doesn't come off, Deano will always be there to tidy up."

But the fact remains that England have often gone into combat without a player who has long been a talisman for their 'Sweet Chariot'-chanting supporters (cries of "Deano! Deano!" almost raised the roof when he made a brief appearance as a blood-bin replacement for Ben Clarke during the first half of last month's game against France in Paris).

This is perhaps partly explained by the fact that Richards remains an enigma even to those who should know him well. Aadel Kardooni, who as Leicester's scrum-half for the last seven seasons has had as close a playing relationship with his club captain as anyone, was not being entirely tongue-in-cheek when he said, "One thing I can say is I don't know a thing about him. He is a complex character, but from a rugby point of view he is totally reliable and unselfish - he always looks after the players around him and he's a focus of attention for all of us."

Even with his Leicester team-mates, who he sees several times a week, he is laconic to the point of Trappism. But his club and England colleague Martin Johnson believes his reserve is his greatest strength. "Dean is dignified in the way he conducts himself," he said. "He is very unassuming, and one of the reasons why we are such a successful club is that this rubs off on a lot of the guys here at Leicester."

Despite his career as a policeman (at present in abeyance while he has an 18-month fling at full-time rugby) Richards has been treated almost as a rebel by the establishment. The world's most capped No 8 - 46 for England and six for the Lions - has missed out on many more through selectorial whim.

This season he became the first player to be banned after two yellow cards in Courage games. Then he brushed aside with characteristic good humour the Rugby Football Union's insistence that he return his sponsored mobile phone and rowing exercise machine - "I suppose I'd better unpack it and put some oil on it. I don't want to create the wrong impression,' he said.

When he put a few noses out of joint in January 1993 by declaring himself unavailable for a squad trip to Lanzarote for family reasons, he loyally insisted: "I will always be there if England want me." They did not want him again for another 10 months until he returned to the colours for the 15-9 victory over New Zealand at Twickenham, after which his captain, Will Carling, said: "You only have to observe the squad when Dean talks, which isn't often. Everyone listens."

His fellow forwards would be advised to listen on Saturday now that Richards has, predictably, taken over as pack leader from Clarke. "He won't say much, but he's very good at directing the traffic ahead of him," Skinner said. "He won't ask too much of them, but they will know what he expects."

Likewise, Richards knows what England expects at Murrayfield. No doubt the job will get done and the selectors will bid thank you and farewell one more time.

A decade of Deano: His back-row partners appreciate the number one No8 Interviews by Paul Trow

Gary Rees

17 caps with Richards, 1986-91

He has awesome strengths, notably the ability to stand the ball up in the maul. It is a contradiction to say he doesn't get around the park because he's often the first to the breakdown. When in possession, he relies on strength and technique. He gives himself a wide base with his legs and a good body position so that nobody can get near the ball. In the tackle, he doesn't tend to knock people back spectacularly, in the way that Mickey Skinner used to. Rather, he turns opponents so that either they get penalised for not releasing or they give the ball away.

Peter Winterbottom

22 caps with Richards, 1986-92

He's totally overrated - only kidding. His strength, basically, is his strength, and he's, adept at taking the ball off opponents. He doesn't charge round like some back-row forwards but is more effective than most. He's always where he needs to be and he's superb at making the ball available. Tackling you, he sucks you into his tentacles and takes the ball off you. When I played with him it was incredible how often he got himself into awkward situations. Because of that he would be kicked about, but in the end I thought he might actually be enjoying it.

Andy Robinson

7 caps with Richards, 1988-89

Probably his greatest strength is the ability to stay on his feet. It takes two or three defenders to stop him. When I played with him, I found I had more space. I scored a try against France in 1989 when Dean passed to me despite being tackled by four players - he still managed to get the ball to me. You need a few players on the field who look after the rest, and it gives you confidence when Dean is on your side. Both in attack and defence I could concentrate on running as wide as possible because I knew Dean would always be there to cover the inside.

Mickey Skinner

9 caps with Richards, 1988-92

The Scots may not be quaking in their boots about some of the England selections, but they will certainly know who is at No 8. When I made my debut against France, I got an important early tackle in on Laurent Rodriguez, who was a really big man. I was on the ground thinking I'd broken my arm when Dean just picked me up and off we went to the next line-out. He doesn't say much on or off the pitch, but his actions speak volumes. He has tremendous presence and is a calming influence on the other players and the management.

Ben Clarke

10 caps with Richards, 1993-95

Even though I am normally No 8 and it is my preferred position, whenever I play with Dean I switch to either blind or open side. There is never a problem with him over understanding each other's areas of responsibility. He has the knack of always being where he should be at the right time. He's incredibly strong and is the focal point of every pack he plays in. He does an incredible amount of often unseen work in the tight and that is his true value - standing up the ball, diving forward and support play. It's uncanny how often he gets the ball off opponents.