Rugby Union: Dallaglio's England blow

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LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO'S chances of rejoining the England squad on 19 July, the date recently put forward by Clive Woodward, appear to be diminishing. According to Brian Baister, the chairman of the Rugby Football Union, the three members of the independent panel set up to investigate recent tabloid allegations of Dallaglio's supposed predilection for "recreational" drugs are unlikely to finalise their recommendations much before the end of next month. The RFU will then set up its own disciplinary committee to consider what action, if any, should be taken against the former national captain.

All of which suggests that Dallaglio will miss the strenuous World Cup fitness testing programme planned by Woodward and his backroom team for the last full week of July, and while some might view that as a bonus rather than a setback - no one in the England camp is remotely looking forward to five days of debilitating physical labour - it would in reality be another blow to the Wasps flanker's morale. The longer Dallaglio remains outside the squad, the more difficult Woodward will find it to rehabilitate him in time for this autumn's World Cup.

Speaking in Sydney, the venue for tomorrow's Centenary Test between Australia and England, Baister made it clear that Dallaglio would not be permitted to rejoin his colleagues until the investigative and disciplinary machinery had run its course. "We at the RFU are the guardians of the game's image and the allegations made by the newspapers concerned are diametrically opposed to the image we want to present," he said. "If we didn't take this seriously, we could legitimately be accused of negligence."

Baister confirmed that Dallaglio might be called to give evidence before the RFU disciplinary committee, even though he has already spoken to Sir John Kay's inquiry team. He added that other England players, presumably those who participated in the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, were likely to be called before the panel. One of the allegations against Dallaglio is that he took drugs with fellow Lions during a celebratory bash in Johannesburg.

"There is no possibility whatsoever that Lawrence will return to the England set-up until this matter is cleared up," continued the chairman. "Neither is there any possibility of us hurrying proceedings along because a World Cup is on the horizon; it would be remiss of us to appoint an independent panel and then try to anticipate its findings. It would be a denial of the truth to suggest that Lawrence's absence from the team is not frustrating, but as far as the inquiry is concerned, the fact that England play World Cup warm-up matches in August is an irrelevance."

Happily, Baister's thumbnail sketch of the state of the union contained some positives as well as negatives. "The heat has finally gone out of the kitchen," he said, referring to the three long years of domestic political upheaval that made a leper of English rugby in the eyes of game's international community. "Our new management board has the ability to take the game forward by three years in the space of 12 months. There have been a lot of changes and in my opinion, the sleeping giant that is England is about to awake."

As if to justify that last comment, Baister reported that a number of his counterparts in the Australian Rugby Union were making England favourites for the big one-off match with the Wallabies. It was, however, a comment that surprised the more active members of the red rose party. "We haven't been here for the best part of a month to prepare for this game, but to prepare for the World Cup," said Jeremy Guscott, the Bath centre who wins his 60th cap tomorrow. "We'll give it everything, of course, and victory would give us a tremendous boost, but this is a `must-perform' game rather than a `must-win' one."

Jason Leonard, who equals his Harlequins clubmate, Will Carling, on 72 caps, offered a similar analysis. "It's a big old game, but we're trying to look at the whole picture. If a side wins the World Cup, no one remembers the fact that they lost a Test five months back down the road, do they? All our preparation up in Queensland was aimed at the autumn rather than tomorrow."

Defeatist talk? Not really. Guscott and Leonard have spent so much time in the heat of Test battle over the last decade that they find it impossible to be anything other than realistic. The Wallabies go into tomorrow's showpiece at Stadium Australia with two victories over Ireland in the locker. England, one the other hand, have only a sketchy win over a substandard Queensland side from which to launch their effort.

Mike Catt, the Bath outside-half turned England centre, is a late doubt for tomorrow's Test because of a knee injury. Catt pulled out of yesterday's training session at Stadium Australia, but the England camp intend to give him as much time as possible to prove his fitness. If he is forced to withdraw, Phil de Glanville, his clubmate, will win his 33rd cap.