Hiding away in the Guinness Premiership, there is a man, quiet of speech and low of profile who has quietly accumulated the finest CV of any English coach in recent years. Nobody else has won 4 back-to-back Premiership titles; no other coach from anywhere has retained the Heineken Cup; no other English coach has beaten Stade Francais in the Stade de France. Last Saturday added another impressive line to the near peerless CV of Deano – Dean Richards, a legend in his playing days and pretty bloody good in his new career as well.
Harlequins’ victory against Stade was achieved without their backs straying very far from the wall at any stage but with their backbones never being anything other than rigid. Their performance smacked of a squad with courage, commitment, no little skill but which above all enjoy playing with and for each other. It was a victory which was surely a symptom of a strong support environment, the sort of victory which Leicester used to grind out at their peak.
And the unassuming but fearlessly strong and steady hand on the tiller was Deano’s. The England job has come up for grabs twice in the space of two years and on neither occasion was he really mentioned as a front runner. This is bizarre, but part of this is to do with timing.
After his run of extraordinary success at Leicester, 2 trophyless seasons saw him shown the door in circumstances so acrimonious that Deano demanded the return of all his memorabilia and that the bar which bore his name should be rechristened. He may be not be a shouter, but don’t mess. So when England’s fortunes started to slide after the departure of Sir Clive Woodward, Deano was quietly going about his business, first at Grenoble, then reversing the fortunes of Harlequins who had recently been relegated to National 1.
Quins romped back up at the first time of asking, winning many friends for both their onfield style and their friendly, outgoing off-field conduct, the latter not something for which they have been noted over the years as a club. After a couple of years of consolidation, they are a formidable outfit this season, looking strong for a first Heineken Cup quarter final in a decade, and challenging at the right end of the Premiership.
They are doing so with a crop of bright young (largely English) talent including Danny Care, Tom Guest, Chris Robshaw, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Brown and Tom Williams. This too is a huge tribute to the work Richards has overseen at the club, making it a true asset to English rugby with a youth system to rival that of London Wasps.
Saturday’s victory in Paris was epic and marked the transition of Harlequins from spirited upstarts with plenty of style but maybe a little short of substance, to genuine challengers. To perform a smash and grab raid such as that in front of 80,000 in a game most of which they spent on the back foot, can leave no doubt that this side means business. It is the sort of victory that those perennial nearly-men Gloucester have never achieved, the sort of victory which separates those with the capability to win a trophy from those who lack it.
During his decorated playing career, it would have been faintly laughable to identify Deano as the man who would go on to establish such an impressive coaching CV. This was a man whose warm-up involved sitting on the throne reading the match-day programme; a man who once spent a Saturday evening drop-kicking the Calcutta Cup down Edinburgh’s Prince’s Street with John Jeffrey; a man who turned up to take a mini-coaching session at my old rugby club and pretty much ate the entire club’s supply of bacon sandwiches.
But he has shown an impressive capacity for keeping moving at the same pace as the game, not easy at a time when the game is progressing rapidly. Those who are worried about Martin Johnson’s lack of coaching experience should note that Deano’s first coaching job was an extraordinary success. So, for that matter, was Andy Robinson’s at Bath. The difference is that both of them took over in a winning environment, but it still took some time, time which should also be granted to Johnson.
For now though, that is by the by. This could be the season in which Deano repeats the trick he performed so often at Leicester and brings some long overdue trophies to Quins. Stade must be sick of the sight of him given that he also masterminded their defeat in the 2001 Heineken Cup Final. Well they’re going to see him again on Saturday and another victory for Quins would see them as good as qualify for the last 8. And it triggers the thought that, had the England job come up 12 months later, there could have been a clamour for a different big Leicester legend to have filled the vacancy.