Dallaglio grows into England job

Steve Bale talks to the forward tipped to take over the England captaincy
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When folk started speculating on Lawrence Dallaglio as England captain, there was no vacancy. Now there is - or will be once Will Carling has stepped down at the end of this afternoon's Triple Crown match against Ireland - and what's more Dallaglio already has the public support of one former England coach.

As Jack Rowell, the manager, dispensed with Dick Best's services, this could conceivably be less advantageous than Dallaglio might wish. But the simple fact that a dyed-in-the-wool Harlequin has been saying something nice about a Wasp suggests that he must be the best choice.

You would hardly expect the man himself to agree, not yet. This is not false modesty, just the realism that comes with an important match to come in which Dallaglio will win his sixth cap. And anyway, much to Dallaglio's frustration the next England game and with it the next captain are not until November.

"Will has made his decision and we all respect that but there is a lot of time for the captaincy strategy to be worked out," he said. "There's enough on my plate coming into the team without worrying about that but I suppose it's an interesting one as to whether it's good to have a club captain as England captain, because Will Carling never was."

This is a reminder that Dallaglio is captain of Wasps at an age, 23, that would seem tender were it not for memories revived in recent days that Carling himself was only 22 when he was appointed in 1988. But if Jack Rowell were minded to follow the example set by Geoff Cooke 60 internationals ago, he would be bound to prefer Dallaglio to all the other captaincy candidates.

For one thing, his place in the England back row - even as an open-side flanker having to learn this new role - is assured. For another, he has shown himself to have a grasp of the exigencies of captaincy in the most testing of circumstances at his club. "It is an added responsibility but it is as much of a burden as you let it become," he said.

"I'd like to think I've played even better than I would have done but it did come a year early. In an ideal world I would like to have been pressing for the captaincy next season, but it was not a decision it took me long to make when it happened." Nor, of course, would it if the England job were to follow, though equally that would be earlier than he would have wished.

Dallaglio was pushed into leading his club last October when Wasps decided they could no longer tolerate the subversive influence of Rob Andrew and Dean Ryan, the former captain and captain who had signed away their allegiance to Newcastle. At the time, Dallaglio was not capped, nor was he playing at open side. Both have subsequently changed.

Greatly for the better, one might add. Dallaglio, 6ft 4in and 161/2st, joined Wasps after a distinguished junior career at No 8 but, owing to Ryan's substantial presence in that position, had to make do at blind side. All the while Rowell was looking for an open side and at the start of the season the manager made clear that, post-World Cup, his back-row policy was about to change.

For the South Africa match in November, Andy Robinson was recalled when what Rowell ideally wanted was not only Robinson's speed but also the extra power that goes with extra stature. He found it in Dallaglio, whose cameo performance against the Springboks - as a replacement blind side - was enough to persuade Rowell to persuade Dallaglio that he must persuade Wasps to make him their open side.

So it has transpired. Even now Dallaglio has played no more than a dozen games in his England position but they have been enough to persuade the manager that he has seen a future that works. "He is an immense player, hard mentally, hard physically, very constructive," Rowell said. "He is the fastest forward we have. He is going increasingly to make an impact in games. He has leadership capabilities."

Coming from such a quarter, this is outright acclamation. Rowell took him on the England tour to South Africa in 1994 - "as an investment", as the manager likes to put it - but Dallaglio failed to make last year's World Cup squad and can be excused a frustration which he says was dispelled as soon as the tournament was over. "In hindsight, I can see why they should have gone for people with more experience than me.

"At the time I was 22, so I was able to reflect that there would be plenty more World Cups to go for. If I'd been 28 and it had been a last chance I would have been bitterly disappointed, but I had the patience to carry on and tell myself my time would come."

Dallaglio's fleeting appearance against the Springboks four months ago has been followed by first-choice selection throughout the season. His progression seems to have been smooth and easy but has been anything but. "The danger is I'm learning at international level which is more difficult because the room for mistakes is so slim.

"You have to be very careful, because you're learning in an arena that is very public and people ask questions of you. That's been quite a serious challenge. But I believe I have the ability and the necessary qualities to play there and I feel I'm improving with every game.

"Of course there are some things smaller players can do more readily but as long as the tall player can get the right body-angles there's no reason why he should be at too much of a disadvantage. Everyone, no matter what shape and size, obviously has certain qualities but the answer is that you pick the guy with the greatest all-round ability."

Implicitly if not explicitly, Dallaglio means himself and England are already accumulating handsomely from the investment Rowell made in South Africa in 1994. Lucky England - there was a time when this Londoner considered throwing in his lot with Italy, land of his Turinese father and indeed of himself, since he holds an Italian as well as a British passport.

When the teenaged Lawrence played for England Colts against Italy at Cambridge in 1991 his surname intrigued the visitors sufficiently for him to be invited to Milan and offered a lucrative contract to play alongside David Campese and under the coaching of another great Australian, Mark Ella.

"The idea was to live out there, study at the university and play for Milan with a view to playing for Italy," he said. "If I had done, I would possibly have been capped at 21 instead of 23, but the way things have transpired it's worked in my favour. I've never regretted my decision to come back; I was never in any doubt that it was England I really wanted."

Instead of Milan, his studies have taken place at Kingston University in Surrey where he is in the final year of a degree course in urban estate management but, as Dallaglio is the prototype of a modern rugby professional, we should not expect him to manage too many urban estates once he has qualified. When our interview concluded he was off to see his agent. See what I mean?