Dallaglio dares to rise higher in England's cause

Even the Wallabies fear the back-row behemoth, writes Chris Hewett
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The Independent Online
Australians do not, as a general rule, fall over each other in a mad rush to heap praise on sporting opponents. Least of all the snooty English, for whom they reserve a particularly vitriolic strain of public contempt bordering on the dismissive.

Listen, then, to Greg Smith, a straight-talking rugby coach from straight- talking Sydney and as hard a nut as ever took charge of the Wallaby national side. "The England back row is a very, very powerful attacking unit - big, strong, fast and damaging - and given a decent platform, they are people you would have to fear."

Could you just run that past us again, Greg? We're not used to having sweet nothings whispered in our ears by hairy-chested, muscle-flexing Aussies with a Test to win.

Actually, Smith was being deadly serious as he extolled the virtues of Tim Rodber, Richard Hill and Lawrence Dallaglio in advance of today's inaugural Cook Cup match at the Sydney Football Ground. And with good reason, too. The English loosies were central to the Lions' unexpected triumph in South Africa and in the light of those deeply committed performances against the feared Bokke trio of Ruben Kruger, Andre Venter and Gary Teichmann, the Wallaby tacticians have reshaped their own back row in an effort to draw the sting from the red rose breakaways.

That will be easier said than done, especially with Dallaglio in such astonishing form. At 24, the Wasps captain is in such complete command of his game that the Lions selectors felt able to switch him from the blind-side flank to No 8 just hours before last weekend's Johannesburg Test, secure in the knowledge that he would deliver in world-class style.

"He really is an incredibly influential player," enthused Fran Cotton, the Lions manager, after the dust had settled on the Ellis Park hostilities. "I can't tell you how impressed I've been with him."

Jack Rowell is equally smitten. "When he arrived at our Sydney hotel, I congratulated him on his success with the Lions," the England coach said yesterday. "And what was his response? `There's one game left to go, Jack. Let's get down to business.' That is the mark of the man." Talent, versatility and an ultra-professional willingness to play all the year round. Almost too good to be true, surely?

In fact, Dallaglio is just beginning to feel the strain of an exhausting 11-month crusade along every last highway and byway of the rugby landscape. "The players who have been heavily involved at international level this summer are going to have to take a well-earned rest and if that means missing the first couple of matches of the new season, so be it. You can't continue at this pace indefinitely, so it would be better to recharge the batteries now than to find yourself hitting a brick wall halfway through next season because of injury or fatigue."

For all that, Dallaglio is still enjoying the view from the greatest rugby high of his career to date. Four years ago, Ben Clarke, his predecessor as England's short-side specialist, completed his first Lions tour with a reputation to die for and Dallaglio has passed the hardest examination rugby has to offer with the self-same flying colours. What is more, he has emerged with his natural enthusiasm for the fray intensified still further by the expansive, exciting style adopted in South Africa.

"I think we all played differently and embraced a whole new philosophy during the course of the tour. In many ways, we had to be prepared to do that; rugby is refereed differently in the southern hemisphere and as a result, positive play tends to be rewarded. A side going forward has every chance of being allowed to retain possession, so you learn to treasure the ball.

"We have to translate that experience directly to today's game against Australia and there are enough England players who underwent the Lions experience to enable that to happen, because it's in the mindset now and has been for some weeks.

"People ask if there is an end-of-season feel about this fixture after all the emotion and elation of the Lions' victory, but I think this is a very important opportunity for all of us to lay down some markers for next season. We're all aware now that England have an ever-increasing pool of players capable of stepping up to Test level and no one can afford a bad run if they want to stay involved."

There is no doubting Dallaglio's involvement, however. He will lead Wasps again next season as the Londoners defend their league title and a good deal of smart money says he will skipper his country too before very much longer. Phil de Glanville is a sufficiently competitive character to make that assumption a matter of prolonged dispute but with Will Greenwood, Jeremy Guscott and Nick Greenstock likely to create a midfield log jam every bit as congested as last year's snarl-up, it would be no surprise to see Rowell or whoever might succeed him hand the reins to an automatic choice. Just at the moment, they do not come any more automatic than Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio.