"What's the best way of making contact with Dean Richards?" I asked John Allan, Leicester's much put-upon secretary. "Try speeding down the M1," came the reply. For someone who had just recently been clocked going faster than light down the A1, this was not an option, but I realised that tracking down Leicestershire's most famous traffic cop and England's most capped No 8 was not going to be an easy job.
And even when you've collared your man, the last thing he wants to talk about is himself. He's far more interested in others, the sort who, according to his chief constable, would never dream of abusing the privilege he enjoys as a sportsman of international repute and whose pastime so frequently wrecks the week's duty roster. "Never once has he failed to make up the time he has lost through playing rugby, even though his colleagues are more than happy to cover for him."
Richards is also the sort of chap who will obligingly turn out in the midst of all his other commitments for his local police team and play his very large heart out for them. The company formed to raise funds for Leicester's first-team squad depends verylargely on the pulling power of the club's star players like Richards whose precious time could be more profitably spent ploughing his own furrow. Yet, if ever there is a conflict between self-interest and club benefit, the club wins every time. "He is," Peter Wheeler says, "the ultimate team man."
If this view of Richards seems curiously at odds with the image of someone who sits quietly in a corner of the dressing-room flicking through the match programme while the other forwards are banging their heads on the wall, and whose absences from scrummage practice were so conspicuous that his team-mates felt compelled to send him a formal invitation to attend the next session, it is simply that Richards is a non-conformist.
The very fact that he has chosen to ignore the edict forbidding players to turn out for their clubs the week before an international is evidence of that. Furthermore, his attitude is easy enough to deduce from the way he plays his rugby. There is not a reputable coaching manual in existence which would endorse the Richards guide to No 8 play, but throughout his illustrious career he has obstinately defied all attempts to turn him into a conventional stereotype. "What they see is what they get. If they like it, fine by me; if not, it's too bad."
There have been occasions when England selectors haven't liked what they have seen, most controversially when they dropped him from the final stages of the World Cup in 1991. The seeds of that particular decision had been sown the previous summer when England's tour to Australia had ended in a record defeat by the Wallabies in Sydney. Despite the 40-15 scoreline it had not been a humiliation, the most glaring difference between the sides being in the back row where England had no response to the pace and precision of the Australians' high-powered loose trio of Willy Ofahengaue, Tim Gavin and Simon Poidevin. By contrast, England's ponderously predictable manoeuvres were mercilessly hacked down. It left an indelible mark on Geoff Cooke's mind and when the decision was taken to change the tactics for the World Cup final, Richards's fate was sealed.
He was deeply upset by the experience although he would never admit as much in public. But what relevance, he wondered, had Sydney in June to Twickenham in November? If Cooke is unrepentant about England's switch of strategy, there have been times since then when he has questioned the wisdom of omitting Richards. "You only have to look at the record books to realise how much better England are with Richards than without him" says Tony Russ, Leicester's director of rugby. …