Rugby Union: Dallaglio's four hours of torment

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The Independent Online
IT WAS a sour occasion for English rugby and an impossibly difficult one for Lawrence Dallaglio. After four tortuous hours of crisis meetings at Castlecroft, the Rugby Football Union's training and development centre in Wolverhampton, the finest blind-side flanker in the world game was not the only one left contemplating an uncertain future after taking the decision to resign his country's captaincy.

While Dallaglio takes time off in an attempt to clear his name after the devastating drug and sex allegations in Sunday's News of the World - he emphatically denies all the principal allegations against him and will give his version of events at a press conference today - it is the job of his successor, Leicester's Martin Johnson, and the national coach, Clive Woodward, to pick up the pieces.

Woodward, one of Dallaglio's closest friends and confidants, must restore the morale of a Test squad blown asunder by the depressing events of last Sunday morning, when his captain's name was dragged across five mercilessly gruesome tabloid pages.

Woodward was due in London today to welcome the 36 members of his party to tour Australia, where England will play one of the biggest matches in their history - the Centenary Test against Australia in front of a 100,000-plus audience in Sydney's new Olympic Stadium - on 26 June. Quite what he will say to them over dinner tonight is anyone's guess. They fly from Heathrow tomorrow and he will not want them to board the plane with their spirits in their boots.

It was the coach's decision to name Dallaglio captain in October 1997 and he did so for the most profound of reasons; not simply because he considered him the best man for the job, the most dynamic leader available to him, but because he wanted to construct a brand new England side in the image of his favourite loose forward. Woodward's vision of an England based on youth, fearlessness, adventure and pizzazz - a Young Turk England, a rookie red rose - depended on Dallaglio fulfilling his vast potential. It was an inspired call - at least, it looked inspired until the clouds suddenly descended on Sunday morning.

Dallaglio had been tested before and graduated with distinction. In the autumn of 1995 the three most senior players at Wasps - Dean Ryan, Steve Bates and, crucially, Rob Andrew - took Sir John Hall's shilling, pushed off to Tyneside and set about creating the Newcastle Falcons. At 23, Dallaglio was charged with the responsibility of keeping the straggling remnants of his home club in the First Division. He delivered. The following season, he delivered some more, leading Wasps to an unexpected, but thoroughly deserved, league title. "Captain Fantastic" screamed the tabloids. They were spot on. His performance in adversity was all that and more.

Not surprisingly, Woodward thought he might do the same for England. The coach did not hesitate to pick the most exciting young talent in the country - most notably Matt Perry of Bath and Will Greenwood of Leicester - for his first Test against Australia at Twickenham, serene in the knowledge that Dallaglio would, by sheer force of personality, make men of them overnight. And so it has gone on, through two Five Nations' Championships and two demanding sets of pre-Christmas internationals. David Rees, Dan Luger, Steve Hanley, Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery have all benefited from Dallaglio's leadership.

Woodward was correct in his judgement of Dallaglio's leadership qualities. They were, and are, legion. Why else would Ian McGeechan, perhaps the most acute assessor of the inner man to coach a rugby team since the late Carwyn James brought his psychological acumen to bear on the great Llanelli and Lions sides of the early 1970s, have given a 24-year-old Johnny-come- lately a seat on the senior players' committee during the 1997 Lions tour - the very tour on which Dallaglio is said to have popped Ecstasy and snorted cocaine?

"I find this all quite unbelievable," said McGeechan of the Sunday revelations. "They are completely out of context with everything on that tour. Those players were the most professional I've ever been involved with and Lawrence was one of those with whom I had very close contact. It just doesn't fit the person and player I know. Everything about him is on the button."

Even if Dallaglio survives this trauma in the longer term, it will take a superhuman effort to stay on the button. It may be that no contemporary English player is stronger in the mind department, where it really matters. But whatever the long-term outcome of the Dallaglio Affair, the age of innocence has run its course.