Hugh Farrelly: Richards starting over on a blank canvas
DEAN RICHARDS had a superb playing career for Leicester and England, incorporating two league titles, 48 caps, three World Cups and six Tests for the Lions. When he moved into management with the Tigers, Richards landed back-to-back Heineken Cups and four English Premierships in a row, making him the most decorated coach in England to this day.
And yet, when you mention the name Dean Richards, the first thing you hear back is 'Bloodgate' -- the rugby scandal that ripped Richard's life apart three years ago when he was coach of Harlequins, inflicting wounds that may now be concealed but will never fully heal.
There is no need to go into the who, when, what and why of that Harlequins-Leinster Heineken Cup quarter-final at the Stoop in 2009 again -- the bottom line is that Quins tried to pull a fast one and got found out. They were not the first club to fake injury to suit their ends, they will not be the last, but they were caught.
Joke-shop blood capsules, the wink, the doctor, the cover-up ... the whole sorry mess was played out in the full glare of the media, and predictably 'gated' within hours of breaking.
The fallout was extensive and intensive and there is no doubting who the main victim was. Goaded by the media, embarrassed by the whole affair and determined to flex some zero-tolerance clout, the rugby authorities handed Richards a whopping three-year ban.
Many felt he was scapegoated, more believed that the suspension was excessively harsh but, while Richards admits to anger, frustration and despair at being forced away from the game he had devoted his life to, he says there is no bitterness left. And, just months away from a fresh start with Newcastle (his ban runs out in August), the 48-year-old just wants to get back at it.
"No, no bitterness, not anymore," he says. "There was at the time -- it was not handled well, not at all, by all parties. But as time wears on, you move on.
"And you learn from it as well. I certainly know it would never happen again and I would not put myself in a position where it would happen again. I like to think other people have learned from my errors as well.
"I have had nearly three years away from rugby, and it has been a totally different experience and in many ways, a wonderful one. I have been able to concentrating on hobbies, friends, family and everything like that but always with an eye to coming back into rugby.
"As time goes on, the more you want to get back involved, you get this urge and passion to get back in. I have still got to wait until August and this will probably be the most frustrating time of all.
"But I am really delighted to be getting back and getting this opportunity with Newcastle. They have ambition. I had approaches from other places but Newcastle attracted me most, although it is fair to say there is probably more work to be done there. It is almost like having a blank canvas."
Richards will be at Twickenham for England's clash with Ireland tomorrow and it is a fixture which has a particular resonance for the former No 8.
Ireland bookended his career. He made his debut against the Irish in 1986, scoring two tries in a 25-20 victory and bowed out of international rugby after a thumping win over Ireland 10 years later, both in Twickenham.
"Three or four hours before my debut, it was touch-and-go whether the game would be played, there was straw on the pitch and snow. And that was the first time England had come off at half-time," he recalls. "You only had five minutes at half-time in those days and we ran into the changing-rooms and stood there like a bunch of lemons saying 'Well, what do we do now?' until (referee) Clive Norling came in and told us to come straight back out.
"I got two tries but they were two pushover tries, I tripped over from a metre, which is about the average distance for all the tries in my career. There was nothing special about it. I did get a bit of attention after that debut, with the tries, but I was back at work the next day being a policeman so as much as you get a bit of a profile, you are straight back down to earth, not like today where the adulation continues on."
Richards was one of the most astute forwards in world rugby. Never the quickest or most athletic, the rangy No 8, with socks around his ankles, seemed to attract the ball wherever he positioned himself and, after thinking his international days were done after the 1995 World Cup, the 33-year-old answered England's SOS call for the 1996 championship.
"They needed to win in Scotland and at home to Ireland and I was brought back in. That Scotland match was one of the most boring internationals ever played but we won and then against Ireland we were able to pull away in the second half. Will Carling went off and I took over the captaincy so I suppose it wasn't a bad way to round off your international career."
Richards is looking forward to tomorrow's match, which he believes will decide whether Stuart Lancaster will take over as full-time England coach.
"I don't know how good a coach he is yet," says Richards. "England haven't performed well this year and I think you only saw a true glimpse of what they can do in the final passages against France. But, Lancaster has acquitted himself very well, he has changed the culture, he's done as well as people have expected -- it is just whether he has the potential to do more.
"I do think Ireland have the quality players to win but it is going to take a massive effort by them. England have got their dander up, they played a better brand of rugby against France, even though the French allowed them to."
Does he see himself coaching England down the line?
"I just want to make things happen at Newcastle and I have no ambitions of being an international coach now. You start giving yourself those goals and they will probably never happen. I think you just set out to be the best coach you can possibly be and whatever happens after that, happens."
A fair bit has happened already to Richards but it is good to see him back. A proper rugby man and a superb coach, there may be blood on the tracks but it is fading and falling further out of sight.
Now it is about walking a new path.