Rugby Union: Mixer fighting off loneliness of leadership

In his brief career as the England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio has yet to lead his side to victory. But, as he told Chris Hewett, he remains a firm believer in long-termism
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THE ENGLAND captain has more important things on his mind - the tender state of his battered rib-cage, for starters - but he soldiers on like a seasoned showbiz trouper, razzling and dazzling his way through a 15-minute press conference and a dozen separate television and radio interviews.

He presses the flesh and delivers his soundbites with customary poise but to the acute observer, he is microscopically moodier than usual. Everybody wants a piece of Lawrence Dallaglio these days and just occasionally, he wishes they would find someone else's bones to pick.

Twenty-four hours later, he is back on Planet Positive. He has survived what he describes as a "fiery little contact session" under the unforgiving gaze of John Mitchell, the assistant England coach. His ribs have been tested to the limit and passed muster. "No reaction at all," he says. "And if there was ever a session that would have caused a reaction, that was it. Ever since we lost in Paris, John has been telling us how soft we are. I think we're a bit harder now."

Like most rugby types, Dallaglio far prefers playing a good game to talking one; ask him whether he would rather answer seven questions about today's England-Wales match at Twickenham or have seven bells knocked out of him in training and he would take rather less than a nano-second to give you his reply. "I enjoy playing ball on a Saturday afternoon," he says. "It's that simple. Don't even ask me how I felt, sitting around on the sidelines watching Wasps lose at Bath last week. I do not like missing matches, period."

But life is not that simple for an England captain, as Dallaglio readily accepts. It is a solitary role, a one-man epic played out in the full view of the mob and while the latest star turn shows no sign of falling prey to the demonic insecurities that so exhausted his immediate predecessors - Will Carling, the Hamlet miscast as hero, and Phil de Glanville, the natural leader betrayed by a catastrophic dip in form - he is fully aware of the minefield he now treads.

"I wouldn't say the job has made me feel lonely or isolated in any way, but I can quite see how the captaincy might have that effect on someone who fails to guard against it," he says. "Fortunately, I'm not the kind of person who allows himself to become detached or disconnected. High- profile positions tend to have their lonely moments but I like to think I'm a mixer, someone who gets on with pretty well everyone both on and off the field.

"Captaincy is great, a dream job, when things are going well. But there's a flipside to everything and the flipside to captaincy is that things blow up in your face now and again. The acid test is how much you're prepared to learn from the knock-backs, how adept you are at picking up the pieces and building something stronger than you had before.

"Long before I was ever made captain of anything, I decided that the only way forward in this game was to perform for the team first and myself second. You are so dependent on other people in rugby that when you get to international level, it is almost like going to war. Like any group of soldiers, the members of a team need absolute trust in each other. It's a `You look after them and they'll look after you' thing. Once that trust in breached, everything falls apart.

"That's why you won't hear me or, indeed, anyone else in this team being critical of a colleague in public. I want to develop a culture of collective responsibility, firstly because rugby is a team game and it's pretty daft to stomp around blaming individuals for whatever goes wrong over the course of 80 minutes and, secondly, because in my book, you rally round when you see someone in difficulty. What you don't do is wait until after the game and talk behind his back."

Dallaglio's "core values" - the camaraderie, the musketeerish "all for one, one for all" ethic - will be under all sorts of strain if Wales, bolshie and buoyant under the bright new stewardship of Rob Howley, manage to sack Twickenham for the first time in a decade this afternoon.

It is not something Dallaglio expects to happen, not by a very long chalk, but he is at pains to emphasise that the building of Clive Woodward's New England is likely to take months, maybe even a year or two, rather than weeks.

"I can quite understand people - the supporters, especially, but also some of the players in this squad - who want things to happen quickly. Christ knows, I'm like it myself; I want to be the best, I want to beat everyone every day of the week and when things don't work out, I'm the first to give it the `Why, why, why?' routine. I'm not the most naturally patient person in the world, to be honest.

"But this is a serious business we're involved in here and it just doesn't come to you overnight. You do your level best, you take stock, you tweak and twist things here and there and you go again. Above all, you listen to advice. The ability to listen is the greatest attribute you can have as an ambitious sportsman.

"When you're England captain, of course, everyone under the sun has a piece of advice for you and I understand that. You can turn a deaf ear, of course, and be dismissive to people. But the art of it is to digest what is being said, pick out the nuggets and throw the rest overboard. No-one knows it all in this game: not me, not the coaches, not even the bloody All Blacks, although they probably know more than most. Once you stop listening, you may as well go and do something else."

Not only does Dallaglio listen, both to Woodward and his coaching team and carefully selected advisers outside the narrow confines of the national squad, but he studies as well. He investigates the dynamics of sporting excellence in whatever manifestation he happens to find it and every time he discovers a "little gem of information", he works out a way of modifying it for his own purposes.

"What fascinates me is the secret of maintaining peak performance over a long period of time and it seems to me that the key to consistent success lies internally rather externally. The best put pressure on themselves; they set their own standards and they keep at it, night and day, until they meet them. And then what do they do? They set new standards. It never ends, no matter what they may achieve.

"In rugby, I don't look much further than New Zealand as a model outfit. But I'm also intrigued by the Chicago Bulls, the Williams Formula One team, some of the yachtsmen who prove themselves time and again in incredibly difficult circumstances. What these people have in common is a drive from within. They're implacable in their pursuit of excellence and that's how I want to see this England team develop.

"We've got the talent in this country and we're pretty well looked after in terms of resources but there are certain differences, tiny but absolutely crucial, between ourselves and the real high-achievers. That is why the 26-all draw with the All Blacks before Christmas was of more use to us than a win, which would have given us a false impression of where we were at.

"It didn't take me very long in Paris a fortnight ago to realise we were going to have a bad day. It was fairly clear, right from the outset, that something was wrong in our collective psychology. Do the All Blacks ever feel that? And if they do, how do they go about dealing with it in such a way as to win a game they really ought to lose? That's what we have to discover and it will take a while to get there.

"Fortunately, it seems we've managed to instil a sense of long-termism in the squad. The players know that losing in Paris did not automatically make them a poor side, any more than drawing with the Blacks made them a great one. We lost sight of a few basics against France and we happened to catch them on one of their good days. Against Wales, we'll take it right back down to winning our one-on-ones, our individual battles, and build from there."

Win or lose, you suspect that Dallaglio will thrive in his one-on-one today. His ribs may well give him all manner of jip and the Henry Cooper- ish scar tissue over his right eye may well split asunder once again. But England's captain does not give a fig about being bloodied, provided he remains unbowed.