Rugby Union: Dallaglio purdah ends in a sweat

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THERE WAS no fanfare, no bunting, just a lot of sweat and toil awaiting Lawrence Dallaglio when he returned to the England ranks yesterday and reported for fitness testing at St Mary's College, Strawberry Hill, a couple of miles from Twickenham.

And the former England captain was probably perfectly happy to undergo the gruelling regime that began just after lunch and dragged on until the evening as preparations begin for the 1999 Rugby World Cup, which gets under way at the beginning of October.

Until a couple of weeks ago Dallaglio's rugby career looked to be washed up even before an independent panel had reached their verdict on the allegations of drug-taking and drug pushing that appeared in a national newspaper in May just before England's short tour to Australia. Dallaglio resigned the captaincy immediately and withdrew from the tour party. At the time it was felt that he would not be able to participate in the fitness testing and pre-World Cup training sessions this summer until the messy business was sorted out.

But earlier this month the Rugby Football Union relented and consented to let Dallaglio take part. So there he was, no longer elevated, but at least free to do what he does best. He is still not certain to make the England World Cup squad. That depends on the findings of the tribunal, but at least he still had one foot in the camp.

He had arrived in the same car as Bath's Jeremy Guscott, refusing to talk to waiting journalists, and walked out on to the college athletic track with his 38 England colleagues (prop Jason Leonard was excused the sessions because his girlfriend was giving birth), for a series of warm- up exercises. He looked relaxed, despite the presence of a battery of lenses as television camera crews and press photographers jostled for a close-up.

Once the initial surge of interest waned it was business as usual as the 40 players set about proving their fitness. The results of the tests will be announced today and it will have been a tense night for the prop Phil Vickery, stand-off Paul Grayson and centre Will Greenwood. They have all been suffering from long-term injuries: neck, groin and stress fracture of pelvis respectively.

If they do not come through the fitness programme they are out of the squad and out of the World Cup. The final squad has to be announced around the beginning of September, by which time the coach, Clive Woodward, will be a long way into his preparations.

At the core of this enlarged squad is Club England, the body of players whom Woodward hopes to weld into a World Cup-winning unit. For the next four months they will be together, training four days a week, sometimes more, and by the end they will have seen far more of each other than of their families. They face two warm-up matches at the end of next month and when the season proper begins, they will not be returning to their clubs, but rather find the preparations moving up a gear as the tournament approaches.

Next Sunday, they travel to Devon for four days of hell with the Royal Marines on their assault and training course at Lympstone. There is a suggestion that the visit will be repeated around August Bank Holiday. Just prior to the putative second visit, they will have played Canada at Twickenham, the second of their two pre-tournament matches, the first being on 21 August at Twickenham, against the United States. Dallaglio may have gone through a personal hell over the allegations, but the immediate prospects are not exactly heavenly.