Rugby Union: Dallaglio back in the saddle as England prepare for battle

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The Independent Online
LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO'S swift reappointment as England captain is unlikely to win first prize at the annual Worst Kept Sporting Secret of the Year awards. That accolade will surely go to White Hart Lane rather than Twickenham, owing to the fact that the whole country seemed to know about George Graham's managerial move from Leeds to Tottenham long before Graham himself realised he was in the running.

Still, no one collapsed with shock when the big rugby news was delivered yesterday. The only unpredictable aspect of the confirmation was its timing, for Clive Woodward had originally set aside the final week of October for his grand announcement. "I don't see much point in dragging things out," the national coach said, as his 26-man World Cup qualifying squad gathered for a 48-hour session at Roehampton. "Law-rence is back to full fitness after missing the summer tour to the southern hemisphere and I'm looking forward greatly to resuming the relationship we developed during the last season."

Matthew Dawson, the poor devil lumbered with the task of leading an emasculated band of no-hopers into the Tri-Nations bearpit during Dallaglio's extended period of rest and recuperation, must have anticipated a tea and sympathy job from Woodward and sure enough, he received liberal helpings of both. The North-ampton scrum-half was forced to sit beside his victorious rival, cuppa in hand, and wallow in the torrent of heartfelt commiseration.

"None of this is any reflection on Matt's leadership qualities; if Lawrence was injured or out of form, I would have no hesitation in asking him to take over the reins," Woodward said. "He did a superb job on tour in circumstances that were none too pleasant for any of us. But there is going to be a huge head-to-head between Matt and Kyran Bracken for the scrum-half's shirt - as a selector, I'm probably relishing the contest more than they are - and I think he'll be better off concentrating all his time and energy into securing his position."

All the same, Dawson scar-cely deserves his demotion, any more than he deserves a captaincy record of three Tests, three wallopings. He was asked to make the best of an unimaginably bad job and did so in spades, reaching deep within himself to summon performances of immense character and considerable technical expertise. Scrum-half is not a fun position to inhabit when your side is being outclassed by the best in the world, but there was never even the hint of a backward step.

"I was always under the impression that the captaincy was strictly temporary and that the position would be reviewed at the beginning of this season," he said. "Clive is quite right to say that my most important task is to earn my place in the starting line-up and I'm quite aware that I've got a big battle on my hands. Beside, Law-rence is invaluable, both as a player and as a leader. I've no complaints."

Assuming he holds down a place in the England back row - and it takes a mighty leap of the imagination to envisage a situation in which Woodward would drop him - Dallaglio will lead his country into next year's World Cup. It seems increasingly likely, however, that the hugely accomplished Wasp will be asked to build a new career for himself as a Test No 8, thus allowing the coach to select a rejuvenated Ben Clarke in his optimum position of blind-side flanker.

"There were times last season when I played both roles in the course of the same game, depending on the circumstances of possession and field position," Dallaglio said, who has relinquished his club captaincy to Mark Weedon and feels all the better for it. "I don't have any hang-ups about the No 8 position, far from it; I enjoy the decision-making element and anyway, six and eight are pretty interchangeable these days. I think we've got some high-class players in every back row position and irrespective of who Clive picks where, we'll be a threat."

Few of the chosen 26 were busting a gut in yesterday's session - half a dozen of them, the veteran Jeremy Guscott and the new boy Spencer Brown included, did not train at all - but a timed 3km run was on the agenda for today. That particular form of torture is one of John Mitchell's babies, but the assistant coach from New Zealand appeared less concerned with fitness levels than the state of British refereeing.

"We simply can't play the style of rugby we aspire to with the situation as it is," the former All Black said, whose public criticism of certain officials may yet earn him an ear-wigging from the powers-that- be. "There is too much whistle, too many interruptions. If we're going to compete with the summer hemisphere we have to keep the ball for long periods of time, so I think it's important that everyone gets together and reach a consensus. If we don't, we'll struggle."