Lawrence Dallaglio: The England captain who said 'enough is enough' and walked away

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The Independent Online

When Lawrence Dallaglio walked into the late-night bar of the Hilton Hotel in Brisbane a couple of hours after England's 36-point defeat at the hands of the Wallabies last June and pronounced himself "suicidal", no one among his handful of listeners felt compelled to phone the Samaritans on his behalf.

When Lawrence Dallaglio walked into the late-night bar of the Hilton Hotel in Brisbane a couple of hours after England's 36-point defeat at the hands of the Wallabies last June and pronounced himself "suicidal", no one among his handful of listeners felt compelled to phone the Samaritans on his behalf. Dallaglio had suffered his share of thumpings down the years - most of them strictly physical, one or two of them deeply emotional - and had successfully absorbed them. Why should he not deal with this latest assault on his honour?

Sure enough, he was his button-bright self the following day. He hit the waterfront bars with the young Bath outside-half Olly Barkley in tow, told a few ribald tales out of school - those featuring Jack Rowell, his first England coach, were as uproarious as they were unrepeatable - and then headed for the airport for the start of a long, three-cornered testimonial dinner stint, split between locations in the Far East and the Arabian Gulf. It was exhausting, simply being in his company. If any senior England player was a stone-cold certainty to stand toe to boot with the South Africans and Australians at Twickenham this autumn, the captain was that man.

Ten weeks down the road, Dallaglio is past tense as far as England are concerned. He retired from the international game, to the surprise of the world and its wife, six days ago. The only people he will eyeball from now on are those clad in Premiership garb - Saracens and Newcastle and bloody Harlequins. When the November Tests come around, the Wasps No 8 will be mixing it with the hard-heads of Gloucester rather than the roughnecks of Canada, Leicester rather than the Springboks, Worcester as opposed to the Wallabies. It takes some fathoming, even now. Dallaglio always gave the England shirt an injection of raw energy, a transfusion of get-up-and-go. How, in the name of all that is holy, could he pack it in now, with the red-rose army in such a parlous state?

Only a visually challenged imbecile would describe him as a spent force. As Dallaglio himself admits: "I'll be playing my rugby with a smile on my face this season, and if anything, I'll train longer and harder than ever before. The last two years have been the most enjoyable of my career, without a doubt, and I don't want to let the feeling go now that I'm in my last couple of campaigns. I'm so up for this, you wouldn't believe it."

Yet England - Dallaglio's England, a side infused with his inimitable spirit and cast, at least in part, in his swaggering image - will not have the benefit of this competitive surge. Why? Because the most celebrated British forward of his generation has reached the conclusion that whatever he might fancy doing at the fag-end of his career, he cannot do it all. Wasps? Yes. England? Yes. Both? No way, Jose.

"I wouldn't say I was tired, exactly," he said late last week, a couple of days after formally announcing the end of a 73-cap run in the white shirt of the world champions. "I never found the volume of games a problem in the physical sense, especially when I was winning - and in recent years particularly, I've come out on top in a huge proportion of the matches I've played. When things are going right, players can't wait for the next fixture so they can be right again. Nobody in any rugby team anywhere in the world moans when results are good.

"But the game I play is based on emotion. I'm not one of those blokes who says, 'I'll play well this Saturday because there's a lot on the match, but I'll take a bit of a breather next weekend'. I want to play well all the time, not just against the All Blacks at Twickenham but against Leeds at Headingley. And it takes some doing, quite honestly, especially when you're the captain and you have other people's problems to think about as well as your own.

"It's not as if I've been flogged more than anyone else. At Wasps, we don't do flogging. I've never played for any other club, so I don't know precisely how different people go about their conditioning and preparation. But at Wasps significant periods of rest are factored into our programme. I've been injury-free, by and large - one set of mangled knee ligaments, a dodgy thumb, not much else - and I've been granted all the recovery time I could want. If I'd been hammered into the ground the way I suspect some Premiership players are, I don't know where the hell I'd be right now. But even with all the good fortune that has come my way, it has finally dawned on me that I can't play for Wasps and England. Not any more. It's too much."

A few hours after Dallaglio's retirement was made public, Sir Clive Woodward followed him through the door in the wall of the red-rose garden, citing familiar complaints about the beasting of top-quality players by fixture schedulers who, in his view, are either naïve or sadistic, or possibly both. "When Lawrence told me of his decision," Woodward said, "I wanted to give him a hug. I knew what he had been through, how much he was hurting at giving away his England career. He should still be playing international rugby, dammit, but the demands make it impossible for him. What kind of game are we involved in here? It's crazy."

The two men, joined at the hip through thick and thin since the coach appointed the granite-jawed loose forward as his first England captain seven years ago, have not always seen things the same way, and they come at this issue from slightly different angles. Dallaglio is nowhere near as condemnatory of the clubs, not least because he earns his living playing for one. But he does see the problem in the round, and his views carry considerable weight. Unlike Woodward, Dallaglio knows what it is to play anything up to 40 matches between the start of September and the end of June - more if it happens to be a World Cup year or a Lions season - and is better placed than anyone to question the sanity of it.

"I think 2003 really was a one-off, in that I played 15 Tests in a calendar year, plus a big chunk of the Premiership and a full Heineken Cup programme," he continued. "I'm not sure how healthy that is for any player, irrespective of how fit he considers himself to be. There is clearly an element of the successful victim here. If your club happens to stay alive to the bitter end in the major competitions, as Wasps did last season, a full-on summer tour can be a bit of a challenge, to put it mildly. The day after the Premiership final at Twickenham - a rough, tough, hard old game against Bath, where everyone knocked lumps out of each other - I boarded a plane for Auckland. You can't carry on like that indefinitely, even if you somehow convince yourself you want to.

"If you compare us with the French, you'll see what I mean. We went down south to take on the All Blacks and the Wallabies, who both wanted a piece of us after coming unstuck in the World Cup. Some of the England squad hadn't played for a month because their clubs had been knocked out of this or that tournament, so they were fairly fresh but not completely switched on. Others had played right to the death, and were dog-tired. The French, meanwhile, had the right idea. They went to play the United States and Canada and had themselves a bit of fun. Lovely.

"What really offended me about our tour was that it wasn't representative of English rugby. We hadn't played well in the Six Nations, having lost a number of highly influential players through retirement and long-term injury, but we were a bloody sight better side than we let on in Dunedin and Brisbane. I suppose I'm saying this: whoever dreams up these fixture schedules should get himself sorted out, because the players in England are nothing more than guinea pigs right now. You can't ask a young player to choose between club and country, because he has a huge loyalty to both. All he can do is try to please everyone by playing every game God sends. The whole of professional rugby is stretched to breaking point - and it isn't sustainable."

Dallaglio may or may not have known for certain that Woodward had decided to turn his face away from England, but he had a fair inkling of what was coming. What is more, he understands rather more about the coach's reasoning than those who blithely assume Woodward has been seduced by the offer of some unspecified role in Premiership football.

"That whole football thing was a red herring, it seems to me," he said. "Clive may have looked at the England situation and thought to himself: 'Jesus, this rebuilding process is going to take three years, and I'm not sure I have the energy.' But the main point as far as I can see concerns the Lions. I think Clive knew he would have to walk away from England the moment he agreed to take the Lions to New Zealand. You can't coach a national team on the one hand and prepare for a major Lions tour on the other, because it murders you. Ask Graham Henry. Clive realised his position with England was untenable, and made the right call. He may well end up in football one day, and if he does, I wish him all the luck in the world. But in terms of what has happened over the last few days, the big issue was the Lions. That's my reading of it, for what it's worth."

It is beyond dispute that the Lions have extracted more than their pound of flesh from England in recent years - 22 red-rose internationals toured South Africa under Ian McGeechan in 1997, another 20 trekked around Australia under Henry four years later. On each occasion, England malfunctioned the following season. Dallaglio was selected for both tours, and in his considered opinion, Woodward should safeguard red-rose interests by resisting the temptation to strip Twickenham bare of front-line coaches.

"Clive has worked with Andy Robinson, Phil Larder and the rest for years, and he knows what these people bring to the table. I'm sure they are keen to experience another Lions trip, because in many ways rugby doesn't get any bigger, any more challenging. But I'd like to see Clive take his coaches from elsewhere, and allow the England staff to accompany the second-string to Canada for the Churchill Cup. The players there will be the ones attempting to retain the World Cup come 2007. It would be a whole lot better for our rugby if the leading coaches concentrated on the day job."

Will Dallaglio make a third Lions tour? He has not turned his mind against the possibility, and a hot season for Wasps could tempt him into one last hurrah at Test level. But even for the celebrated Londoner, the competition would be intense. Simon Taylor, a world-class Scot in the making, covets the No 8 shirt, as do sundry Englishmen - Joe Worsley and Chris Jones, to name but two. Should the Woodward-less, Dallaglio-less world champions eke out some sort of result against the Boks or the Wallabies this autumn, and then go on to win the Six Nations title, there will be precious little to prevent the new guard replacing the old in the red shirt of the four home unions.

And Dallaglio believes England might do just that. "There clearly isn't the level of expertise we had six months ago," he said, "but I'm not at all convinced we are in a doom-and-gloom situation. Great sides cannot be recreated just like that, and patience will be crucial. But there are still people involved with England who are accustomed to success, and recent setbacks will have left them fearing failure. When you see a team with their eyes out on stalks, motivated to the limit and determined to restore some pride to the shirt, you know they are dangerous. And that is what I hope to see, expect to see, from England in two months' time."

Lawrence Dallaglio: Life And Times

1972 Born Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio in Shepherd's Bush, London.

1989 Signs for Wasps.

1993 Member of England's World Cup-winning Sevens side.

1994 Called up by England coach Jack Rowell for the tour to South Africa.

1995 Appointed Wasps club captain. Makes England debut later the same year in a 24-14 defeat by South Africa at Twickenham.

1996 Guides Wasps to their first league title.

1997 Selected for Lions tour of South Africa, which the tourists win 2-1. Appointed England captain later the same year.

1999 England blow the Grand Slam in their final game against Wales, losing to a last minute Scott Gibbs try. A terrible year is completed when, amid tabloid allegations of drug taking, he steps down as England captain.

2000 Selected as Lloyds TSB Six Nations Player of the Year - but England fail to win the Grand Slam again after a last game defeat to Scotland.

2001 Forced to fly home from the Lions tour to Australia because of a knee injury.

2003 Only man to play every minute of England's victorious World Cup campaign. Reappointed England captain after Martin Johnson steps down.

2004 Ends England career after 73 caps.