Legends are made at Leicester Tigers, and few are bigger than Dean Richards.
A talismanic presence in the back row, characterised by loose shirt and rolled-down socks, Richards played more than 300 games for the club and then led the team as director of rugby through a golden era when Tigers were Kings of England and Europe.
Born in Nuneaton and introduced to rugby at John Cleveland College in Hinckley, Richards became a fixture at No8 (in the letter ‘G’ shirt of the era) after making his senior club debut in 1982.
“My life began to change from that first night my father drove me to Leicester for my first-ever training session,” he recalled in his 1995 autobiography.
“Chalkie White was a coach who looked at the game from an angle you hadn’t thought of, but when you followed his line of thinking, you realised that he was right.”
Richards spent a season playing senior rugby in France with the Roanne club before making his Tigers debut – “so I wasn’t quite wet behind the ears,” as he put it – and played just three games for the Swifts and two for the Extras before moving into the first-team.
A trip to Neath in April 1982 was the setting for the 18-year-old’s debut – an unappealing prospect given the reputation of the welcome in the Valleys at the time – and the club’s Tigers Tale history book tells us "he was so unknown that the Mercury referred to him as T Richards (though we could be charitable and call it a copy-taking error)." Regardless, Richards started on a winning note.
Making an instant impact was a feature of Dean’s career, becoming the youngest Tiger to play in a Cup Final in 1983 and appearing as a teenage replacement for the Midlands against New Zealand at his home stadium in the same year. He also scored two tries on his senior England debut in 1986 after previous caps at Schools, Under-19 and Under-23 level.
With the echoing sound of “Deano Deano” from the Leicester stands, he had the ability to read the game around him and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time through 314 games in club colours and as a standout performer with England and the Lions.
Combining his rugby with his career as a Hinckley policeman, often heading straight from shifts to link up with the team and then back to work again, even during his international playing days, Richards was a league title winner with Tigers in 1988 just as the previous generation’s Cup Kings handed over to a new guard and then again as captain in 1995.
He was also a Cup finalist in 1989 and winner in 1993, and served as captain 1988-91 and again in 1993-96.
Richards also earned 48 caps for England, which was a world record for a No8 at the time, and shared in Grand Slam triumphs of 1991 and ’92 as well as World Cups in 1987 (a year in which he totalled 20 tries in 20 games for his club), 1991 and the run to the 1995 Final.
Richards also played in six Tests for the Lions in Australia in 1989 and New Zealand four years later.
Awarded an MBE for services to rugby, his testimonial evening at Welford Road in 1997 was a star-studded occasion ahead of his final playing appearance, those 314 games bringing 105 tries and 431 points for the club.
It seemed like the end of an era, but was the beginning of another as he joined an untried management team in 1998 with long-time back-row colleague John Wells and World Cup-winning fly-half Joel Stransky.
They directed the team to a league title in 1999, winning 22 out of 26 games in the process, and a year later became the first team to win back-to-back Premiership crowns. That became a hat-trick in 2001 – when Tigers also won the inaugural Zurich Championship play-off introduced as a showpiece end to the season – and remarkably added another in 2002 to make it an unprecedented four in a row.
The team made more history by not only winning the European Cup in May 2001 with a memorable defeat of Stade Français in Paris, but also became the first team to retain the title when they did again 12 months later with a win over Munster in Cardiff.
That golden spell yielded seven trophies in four years and a run of unbeaten home games stretching beyond the 50-mark.
When Dean departed in February 2004, he had been at Tigers for 23 years, subsequently taking charge at Harlequins, Grenoble and Newcastle Falcons. But for his legion of fans, the image of the ‘G’ shirt, with a ball at his feet at the base of a scrum or in his grip in possession, together with the chanting of the Tigers faithful, will forever be part of the club’s history.
His place has been confirmed as an inaugural inductee in the Hall of Fame alongside fellow captains Martin Johnson and Peter Wheeler, his first coach Chalkie White, and good friends David Matthews and Tudor Thomas.