Rugby Union: Dallaglio's moral dilemma

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TRUST THE southern hemisphere to gatecrash European rugby's most exclusive private party. Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain, assumed he would be talking Five Nations business when he pitched up at Twickenham yesterday to chew a little Calcutta Cup fat, but it was not long before the thorny subject of Joel Stransky's red rose credentials raised its Springbok-shaped head. To be sure, the issue is getting thornier by the day.

Stransky, the kicking outside-half from Pietermaritzburg who famously drop-goaled South Africa to the Webb Ellis Cup in 1995 before joining Leicester a year later, has been widely touted as a potential honorary Englishman for this autumn's World Cup. Worryingly for Dallaglio's team - not least Mike Catt, the current tenant at No 10 - the hubbub is gaining in volume and is clearly threatening to become a destabilising factor.

When the skipper dipped his size 12s in the murky waters of refugee rugby yesterday, he appeared to make quite a splash. "In my opinion," pronounced the half-Italian Dallaglio, oozing with highly principled common sense, "if you play for one country, you should not then play for another. If I was dropped by England, I wouldn't head straight for Milan with a view to turning out for Italy." That's that, then. Done and dusted.

Well, not quite. Dallaglio was at pains to explain that in the event of the Twickenham decision-makers allowing pragmatism to beat ethics to the punch, he would go with the flow. "I wouldn't have a problem playing alongside someone like Joel if he was actually picked for the England side," he stressed. "If the laws permit this sort of situation to arise, people are bound to debate the possibilities."

Dallaglio is not alone in finding himself forced to weigh the morals of the matter against the potential benefits of a more hard-headed approach. Clive Woodward, the national coach, has also spent the last few days trying to untwist his knickers over Stransky and there were some serious rumblings of discontent in Cape Town this week as the Springbok hierarchy publicly registered their mocking disapproval. Rugby has sown itself an entire crop of political hot potatoes, but this one has a molten feel to it.

Ironically enough, Catt is also a South African, although not quite as South African as Stransky, if that makes sense. The coincidence merely adds to the responsibility he carries into tomorrow's awkward tussle with Scotland, who are past masters at preying on English insecurities and utterly ruthless in knocking bigger and apparently better equipped red rose outfits out of synch. Thanks to the pre-Christmas victory over South Africa, in which Catt was a hugely positive influence, the Twickenham faithful expect great things, both of the Bath stand-off in particular and their team in general.

"Mike has heard the talk and it's up to him to comment on all this as he sees fit, but he knows as well as anyone how vital it is that we back up the win over the Boks with a performance of real substance," agreed Dallaglio.

"We've been here before, in a sense. Last year, we started our Five Nations campaign in France off the back of a draw with the All Blacks and we got our approach entirely wrong. It can happen. Sometimes you get excited by a particular performance and you make the mistake of looking back rather than looking forward. We are very capable of losing this game against Scotland if we fail to pay them the right degree of respect. I'm happy, though, that there is real desire in this England team; look at the most successful sides in the world and you realise that the expectation comes from within. Any player who does not show the necessary ambition to get better and better will not be in the squad very long.

"We set high standards before Christmas, particularly in defence, but South Africa and Australia still take gold and silver in that department. We're equal third with the rest and, quite honestly, I don't want to be third in anything."