Dallaglio illuminates the meeting of past and future

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The Independent Online
To visit Winnington Park, the rugby club of Winnington, a suburb of Hartford, which is itself a suburb of Northwich in Cheshire, is to revisit what rugby union used to be in both reality and fond imagination, and witness what it may - in these parts anyway - become.

Winnington Park are sufficiently ambitious to regard elevation to the English Third Division from their present station in the Fifth Division North to be comfortably feasible. After that, if the extraordinary community spirit released by their Pilkington Cup tie against the First Division sophisticates of Wasps were to be maintained it might not end there.

Not that the match itself fulfilled any ambition for Park beyond its staging, though that alone was a striking accomplishment. The remaining seven-eighths of the fifth round - including even Leicester, who tend to be immune to inclement weather - fell victim to the blast of winter from the Russian Steppes that came more fiercely to the other side of the Pennines.

Last season's beaten finalists won 57-0, a predictably overwhelming margin deemed unfair by Doug Hill, the home coach who spent a peripatetic playing career between Leicester, Moseley and Coventry in rugby union before plying his trade for St Helens and Salford.

Hill thought 30 would have done better justice to his team's effort but, cruel as it may seem to say so, the actual score did reflect the disparity of four divisions and that will have been useful to Hill in demonstrating what is involved when mixing with rugby's quasi-professional elite. It is only fortnight since the Winnington players voted to remain resolutely amateur, though at least the pounds 2 match-fee they otherwise have to pay was waived on this special occasion; it will not be when Stourbridge come to Burrows Hill on 10 February.

Heavy at it was, in this defeat there was no dishonour. Park had a period of pressure after receiving their half-time lecture from Dewi Morris, the former England scrum-half, which deserved a try and in John Farr, who now fills the position once held here by Morris, they had as inspirational a player as any of Wasps'.

Farr, by means of old Bedford associations, has risen from the relative obscurity of semi-rural Cheshire to play for the Midlands in Matthew Dawson's absence this season and, in Morris's distinguished view, has a big future. Probably elsewhere, since, as Morris put it, bigger clubs are "sniffing around".

These days Morris helps Hill with the coaching at Winnington Park, the club he joined in 1984 when he left home in Breconshire for Crewe & Alsager College, which it so happens is where Farr is a student now. Contrary to fanciful reports, Morris never intended rescinding his retirement for this match, but he is back in training and will make his bow in veterans' rugby on 21 April in a game in aid of the Richard Langhorn Trust.

Morris had tried to tell his players what it would be like to face Wasps, but until they had experienced it they could not know. Now they do, and indeed it was a salutary experience. Once Jon Ufton had scored three tries every time the ball moved right in the first quarter Park were reduced to a salvage operation and though there were longish periods when Wasps failed to add, notably the entire third quarter, the final 18 minutes were a riot of one-way scoring.

To the Kevin Dunn try which augmented Ufton's hat-trick before half-time were added two each by the Hopley brothers and one by Shane Roiser. In the circumstances, Park could reasonably have hoped Guy Gregory would have succeeded with fewer than six of his nine conversions.

Still, they do not normally encounter the likes of Damian Hopley, who tormented them in midfield, nor the magnificent Lawrence Dallaglio, who on the strength of just three caps now possesses the assurance and authority of a far more seasoned international.

Jack Rowell, the England manager, will not have been enamoured that Dallaglio, who has undertaken to become a regular open-side flanker, moved to No 8 in the absence of Peter Scrivener so as to accommodate Chris Wilkins's first appearance after a year recovering from a neck injury. But as Rowell's co-selector Mike Slemen was able to witness at first hand, Dallaglio's attacking play was fully worthy of an open-side, while his ferocious defensive tackling was fully worthy of a No 8.

What a player. His team, whose every Cup tie has been away from home since 1993, will be the only certain entrants in the quarter-final when the either/or draw is made at Twickenham today, and in the knowledge that they would surely progress Wasps played rugby designed for the future rather than the present. "Without saying the result was a forgone conclusion people were expecting us to win, and without trying to sound too confident it was a chance to get our style back for the important games we have coming up, especially to fill that European place," Dallaglio said.

Europe is now beginning to mean different things to different people, the formation of a European Professional Clubs' Association and the EPCA's agreement to a Uefa Cup-style second tier of Euro-competition clearly conflicting with the continuing domestic commitments of the various rugby unions.

Not that Wasps aspire to anything other than the European Cup itself - meaning a top-four Courage Championship finish - and but for the Rugby Football Union's obstruction they would gladly already have participated in this inaugural season.

Such an aspiration, by contrast, would be the sheerest fantasy for Winnington Park, whose official target is the Third Division by 1998, and promotion to the Fourth this season from their current position of fourth in the Fifth North is not impossible. Even as it is, among north-west clubs only Sale, Orrell, Waterloo and Liverpool St Helens are higher up the league.

"I'm convinced there is room for a big rugby club in this area, perhaps not as big as Sale or Orrell, but who knows what you can achieve when you get a momentum going?" Doug Hill said. Certainly if the good people of Northwich had anything to do with it, his wish would be fulfilled. In order to ensure the match went ahead 200 volunteers and a donated JCB were on hand early on Saturday to clear snow off pitch-covers that had been laid as the temperature plummeted on Thursday.

Once the covers had been removed paraffin flame-throwers thawed the odd frozen patch and everyone was quite happy to proceed. "As far as we were concerned, the game was never in doubt," Dallaglio said. Nor, alas, for Winnington Park on the greatest day in their 89 years, was the result.

Wasps: Tries Ufton 3, D Hopley 2, P Hopley 2, Dunn, Roiser; Conversions Gregory 6.

Winnington Park: R Oliver; A Bird, S Ogden, M Farr, J Owens; G Lloyd (P Gibson, 74), J Farr; D Allcock, I Taylor (capt), I Davies, P Rees, D Nicholls, M Bebbington, R Sproston, N Yardley.

Wasps: J Ufton; P Hopley (L Scrase, 78), D Hopley, A James, S Roiser; G Gregory, S Bates; D Molloy, K Dunn, I Dunston, M Greenwood, R Kinsey, M White, L Dallaglio (capt), C Wilkins.

Referee: J Wallis (Bridgwater).