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Redemption of a sinner

At that point on the rugby calendar when Scots begin to display the first symptoms of Groundless Optimism Syndrome – believing, against all available evidence, that a historic victory over England is on the cards – it is worth bringing to mind a few memories of Dean Richards, a man whose contribution to Scottish self-esteem is right up there with King Edward I, the Duke of Cumberland and Dr David Starkey.

Dean Richards and Newcastle are proving a perfect fit    Photograph: Getty
Dean Richards and Newcastle are proving a perfect fit Photograph: Getty

Richards, who won the first of his 48 England caps in 1986 and the last a decade later, was a colossus in an age of big men. And he seemed to save his best for when he played Scotland, their fast, attacking game foundering on the mighty rock he was. His contribution to England's 18-9 victory at Murrayfield in 1996 was one of the greatest individual displays in the sport's history.

But hang on. Didn't the Richards era straddle the 1990 game? Only the greatest rugby match in history? Scotland's finest hour? Well, yes it did. But he wasn't playing.

"I would have liked to have played in that one," Richards smiles. He doesn't go so far as to say the result (13-7 to Scotland) would have been different, but we can probably be thankful he was elsewhere that day. As, perversely, can he, for his absence allowed him to maintain his unbeaten record against Scotland: played seven, won six, drew one, lost none.

He has a theory about it, too. "If you are against sides that are so passionate, you find they often lose a little bit of their structure because of that," he says. "It can be a very good approach if you understand that and are hard-nosed about it. Put passion to one side and be very cold about it. That is what we did.

"In 1996 we said it would be a win-at-all-costs game. When Jack [Rowell, then England coach] brought me back into the side, he said it would not be pretty but this is what we're going to do. When we came off the field, I sat down in the changing room and he came over and sat next to me. We just had a chuckle to ourselves about how it had turned out. I guess spectators must have fallen asleep, but in terms of getting the result we wanted, and probably needed, it was ideal."

Win at all costs? This is danger-ous ground to be going over with Richards. As a player, he won respect, however grudging, for his no-non-sense, pragmatic way of grinding out victories, but as a coach he earned notoriety, and then infamy. First, there was his defence of Neil Back's blatant cheating, when the flanker knocked the ball from Munster scrum-half Peter Stringer's hands, in Leicester's 2002 Heineken Cup win. And then, seven years later, the scandal that rocked rugby to its foundations.

Bloodgate. A suitable name for the sport's most venal episode. It began with the revelation that Harlequins wing Tom Williams used a blood capsule to fake injury in a match against Leinster, and ended with an ERC investigation naming Richards, then Quins' director of rugby, as orchestrator of the deception and subsequent cover up. "He was the dominant personality and influence on affairs," the ERC report said.

Richards, who famously re-engineered the Calcutta Cup on a late-night sashay through Edinburgh with John Jeffrey in 1988, was known as a loveable rogue. But this was something else. A different league. He was banned for three years.

The sentence ended last August, when he moved into the post of Director of Rugby at relegated Newcastle Falcons. Which is where we find him now, sitting in a lounge at Kingston Park, those great plates-of-meat hands that used to strangle the life out of Scotland parked gently on the table in front of him.

So how does he reflect on his exile? "I missed the game massively at first," he says quietly. "I was pretty bitter in the first year. But I came to understand that the bitterness was probably my own doing. It takes a little while to sink in. But then, you accept it and make the most of it.

"So I had a great three years to be honest. I really enjoyed it. I did a lot of travelling and had a good time. I wasn't sure if anyone would want me, but after two years a few people were showing interest and I was delighted to be invited back into the game."

And Newcastle was a good fit. Two rehab projects together. Like Richards, the club had taken a tumble, finally dropping out of the Aviva Premiership after so many fraught seasons flirting with relegation. It had been a messy departure, too. First, they were given a lifeline when it was deemed that the facilities of Championship winners London Welsh were not up to scratch and they could not be promoted. Then it was whisked from their grasp when the Exiles side won their legal challenge.

Heads could easily have gone down, but Richards found a sanguine group of players when he arrived.

"It is strange because the guys never really mention it," he says. "I had moved up in preparation to start in August, and I came down to the club on the day rel-egation was confirmed, but nobody seemed too disappointed by what happened. I think the thought was that they had finished bottom of the pile and probably deserved to go down.

"I think it's fair to say the preference would be to stay in the Premiership. Anyone would think that way. But, looking at the sides that have gone down and then come back up, it has not necessarily done them any harm."

Nor Newcastle. With all that Premiership experience in their ranks they were expected to do well, but their run has been astonishing. They have won all 11 of their games, rattling up an average of more than 36 points per match. If they can survive the new play-off system they will be back in the Premiership next season.

So everything is fine? "Complacency is a fear," warns Richards, who is no fan of the play-off system as it makes forward planning almost impossible. "I think it is probably the biggest fear, because what it might do is breed bad habits. Thankfully, at this moment the players are very good at self-policing. They are very self-critical, which is something I like to see."

And what of Richards himself? Is he a reformed character? A better man for his time in the wilderness? "Three years was what I got and I accept that," he says firmly. "I think it's fair to say that I have a different viewpoint on life now, but I don't know if I am a better person or a better coach. You might be better to ask other people."

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