Rugby Union: Dallaglio on tenterhooks

THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: The Wasps captain will learn today whether he has paid the price for England's poor showing last month. Ian Stafford spoke to him
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Sudbury, on a cold, January night. The players from high-flying Wasps emerge from the car park ready for another hard training session. All the talk is about the Pilkington Cup match next Saturday at Saracens, and the England team to face Scotland the following Saturday, which will be announced today.

Ice is just beginning to form on the windscreens when a familiar figure hobbles into the warmth of the clubhouse. Lawrence Dallaglio, the club captain of Wasps, took no part in training the other night thanks to a hamstring injury obtained down at Bristol. With two stitches clearly visible above his left eye, he seemed slightly battered.

Retiring upstairs to clasp his big, bear-like hands around a hot cup of coffee, it soon emerged that the battering has not just been physical. Dallaglio, the find of the international season last year, and the hot favourite to take over from Will Carling as England captain just a couple of months ago, is now being talked about as a possible candidate for the dreaded chop.

"Eight minutes can be a long time in rugby," is how he puts it. "So two months are positively light years away."

All of a sudden the seemingly unstoppable rise and rise of Lawrence Dallaglio has hit problems. Consider his last three years. His name first came to prominence when, as a virtual unknown, he played in the World Cup winning England sevens team in 1993. On the back of this he broke into the Wasps first team, and then into England Colts. He then made the England Under- 21 squad down in Australia, before slotting nicely into the England A team under a certain Jack Rowell.

Winning his first cap as a replacement against South Africa at Twickenham in November 1995, Dallaglio made an immediate impact. The Wasps' captaincy followed, after Rob Andrew's somewhat awkward departure to Newcastle, and Dallaglio was quick to ensure that his name would be one of the first written down in each subsequent England selection meeting. When Will Carling decided to call it a day at the helm after last year's Five Nations tournament, all eyes automatically focused on the 24-year-old from Wasps.

This, however, is where the tone of the script suddenly changed. After an unbearable length of time, Jack Rowell suddenly named his new captain. To many people's surprise, he chose Phil de Glanville ahead of Dallaglio. This was not the news our man wanted to hear, but at least it was news.

"I thought I might get the job," he concedes. "I never thought I definitely had it, but I knew I had a shout, and I also knew that, given a chance, I would have handled it. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that it was always in the back of my mind. I may not have necessarily believed that the job was mine, but everybody else seemed to think so, not only here at Wasps, but even with the public."

In what way? "Well, I'd get stopped in the street by a total stranger and get asked when I was going to be named as captain. I always tried to play it down and remind people that it was not a foregone conclusion that I even had the job."

When Rowell finally made the telephone call Dallaglio's em- otions turned quickly from disappointment to relief that, at long last, it was over. "The lead-up to the appointment of the captain was, because of the nature of Phil de Glanville's predecessor, akin to a Presidential election. This had a lot to do with the amount of time it took to reach a decision.

"The RFU [Rugby Football Union] and the management were not helped by the internal war going on within the game between the Union and the clubs, but I believe that whoever was going to be appointed could have dealt with anything thrown at them. What annoyed me more than anything else was how I had to endure all the hype and build-up for a protracted period of time. It was not only hard on me, but also for my family and close friends, and I just don't feel it was especially necessary. I don't think any of the so-called candidates needed to be put through it all and it was not a pleasant experience."

He pauses for a second, before brightening up. "I'm certainly not bitter about it, nor am I jealous of Phil. I was just relieved that a decision was finally made. I'd been on a knife-edge, and it was preventing me from concentrating 100 per cent on my job. Besides, I'm still only 24. I'd like to believe I have a long future ahead of me, and I can only improve both as a player and as a captain. Who knows, the captaincy issue might come round again in a few years' time?"

A decent England team performance against Italy, and a defeat, but with many positive aspects, against the New Zealand Barbarians followed during last autumn. Then, in what was supposed to be a rousing way to end 1996, and set up the 1997 Five Nations tournament, England faced Argentina. In what turned out to be a dour scrap, England scraped home by a kick. The team faced first jeers from the Twickenham crowd, and then criticism from the media, and suddenly question marks arose over the back row.

Was all this fair? "Well, nobody can quite criticise like the British media," Dallaglio counters. "And I think the crowd's changed at Twickenham. The true, West Car Park rugby folk are being replaced by a less-educated, in terms of rugby knowledge, more corporate supporter. But, yes, it was a flat performance. I think we may have got a little carried away with our two previous performances and assumed we would put 50 points past Argentina. We kicked a lot of possession away, and gave them the chance to express themselves. At that level, even if you ease off for a fraction, you're asking for trouble."

As a result, though, Dallaglio will be waiting to hear today's England news with less confidence than usual. All the talk is of changes, possibly of personnel, and probably positional. He's not making excuses, but it is pretty obvious that Dallaglio would prefer a crack at blind-side flanker, as opposed to wearing the No 7 shirt.

"I'm capable of playing in all three back row positions with not much preference, but No 6 is the position I have most experience in, and the position most coaches play me. I've not played too many games at open- side and, at international level, it's an unforgiving arena. I just don't think blind-side plays completely to my strengths. I'm at my most comfortable with the ball in my hand and taking players on."

If Dallaglio's worst fears occur today, then he will pick himself up, dust himself down and bounce back. He says this in a manner which asks for no debate. "Everyone in sport has setbacks," he argues. "It's always a true test of someone's character to see how they respond to them.

"I remember when Rob Andrew was dropped for Stuart Barnes, after winning 47 caps. Others might have settled for the England career he had, but Rob came back to Wasps, was last back from training every time, and won his place back. I, for one, certainly fed off that determination and mental hardness." He pauses again, and lowers his voice: "Anyway, I've had a great deal more to contend with than being dropped."

Indeed he has. Dallaglio, for those who do not know, lost his elder sister eight years ago in the Marchioness barge disaster on the Thames. It is a memory that is not likely ever to fade away. But it has also instilled an inner steel within an already determined young man.

"Nobody will be more disappointed than me if I am dropped," he insists. "But it does not exist on the same planet as losing your sister in such a manner. I tend to show my emotion in the short-term a lot quicker than most people. I certainly did with my sister. But the initial pain tends to be short-lived. I then lick my wounds and come back roaring. I just don't accept defeat. Whatever happens I will be positive and always looking forward, not behind."

It is unlikely Dallaglio will need to bounce back just yet. The word from inside the camp, so to speak, is that not only will he retain his place in the England team to face Scotland on Saturday week, but that he may well get his wish and be given the No 6 shirt. But if he receives the dreaded telephone call today, you can put your house on Dallaglio bouncing back with all guns blazing. From the evidence of a couple of hours in his company, this is an extremely determined, young man. A couple of months is a long time in rugby, but it can work either way.