Rugby Union: England left reeling over Dallaglio

Nation's hopes in Rugby Union World Cup may depend on the survival of their leading man.

ANOTHER World Cup year, another public scandal, another captaincy crisis, another bad news day for a game that has had all the bad news it can take. English rugby, apparently locked into a four-year cycle of trauma and turmoil, has been here before - in 1995, when Will Carling was summarily, if temporarily, sacked for aiming an off-camera jibe at the Twickenham hierarchy - but this time, the potential fall-out is infinitely more serious. Lawrence Dallaglio, the clean-cut personification of rugby union as a healthy sporting option, is standing neck deep in the dirt of a tabloid sting and the stench is far greater than anything generated by his predecessor and his "old farts".

About the only thing of which Dallaglio was not accused yesterday was cheating at rugby: the drugs he was alleged to have handled at various times over the last seven or eight years were of the "recreational" variety, rather than performance-enhancing steroids. That at least saves the Rugby Football Union the anguish of testing its own national captain for evidence of calculated deceit. But it will come as small consolation to the great and good of the RFU, who are now pondering the possible ramifications of a singularly depressing episode.

The first reaction of Clive Woodward, the England coach, will be to support and defend his right-hand man. Only last month, during the build-up to his side's Grand Slam match with Wales at Wembley, Woodward described Dallaglio as "a diamond, a quite fantastic player and captain" and the relationship between the two is both closer and more complex than, say, the one between Geoff Cooke and Carling in the glory years of the early 90s. They are personal friends - they often watch football together - and while Woodward may be the head honcho, Dallaglio is virtually an equal partner; more equal, certainly, than is usual in a professional sport where the coach, rather than the skipper, stands or falls by results.

Dallaglio took over the captaincy when Woodward replaced Jack Rowell in the autumn of 1997 and was re-confirmed as World Cup skipper last September. Rowell himself carefully considered appointing Dallaglio to the top job, but privately admitted to being fearful of "creating another Carling", by which he meant a mass media rugby figure bigger than rugby itself. He decided that the half-Italian Catholic boy from Shepherd's Bush should earn his spurs amongst the foot soldiers and picked the supremely level- headed Phil de Glanville instead.

In essence, then, Woodward and Dallaglio arrived simultaneously, hence the enthusiastic trumpeting of England's "dream ticket". Their partnership, based on openness and enthusiasm, quickly resulted in the reinvention of a previously stodgy national side as an adventurous 15-man outfit capable of drawing with the All Blacks and beating the Springboks. The upbeat atmosphere in the Test camp was unrecognisable from the jagged, edgy paranoia created by Rowell and his crafty mind games, and so it has remained, with Dallaglio blossoming as a loose forward of undisputed world class.

Unlike Bill Beaumont, who won his 1980 Grand Slam with the most experienced pack in English rugby history, and Carling, who enjoyed the luxury of a settled side throughout his back-to-back Slams in 1991-92, Dallaglio has found himself at the helm of some of the greenest red rose teams in living memory. At 26, he is a father figure; not only to two infant daughters at home, the second of which he helped deliver in a home birth only a fortnight ago, but to umpteen hulking great rugby players with World Cup ambitions. Until now, his fitness for that task has never been questioned.

Without him, the England team would be a very different prospect, indeed. Martin Johnson, a victorious Lions captain two years ago and the inspiration behind Leicester's recent Allied Dunbar Premiership triumph, would be the obvious successor as leader should Dallaglio fail to convince the RFU of his continued suitability for the top job. But Johnson struggled to stamp his dark personality on the Test side when, in Dallaglio's absence, they went perilously close to losing a World Cup qualifier against Italy in Huddersfield last November. He may be one of the world's great lock forwards, but he possesses none of the incumbent's relish for an extra- curricular workload - press conferences, after-match formalities, public appearances - that increases by the week.

In fact, Dallaglio's current predicament may wound English rugby more seriously off the field than on it. He has always shouldered more than his fair share of the community and development burden, both for his club, Wasps, and under the red rose banner, but with a World Cup the small matter of four months away - a World Cup in which England justifiably fancy their chances - the demands on the captain will increase 50-fold. In purely commercial terms Dallaglio has long been seen as an image-setter for the biggest, richest tournament yet seen in the sport.

Whether he remains an image-setter depends entirely on how he responds to yesterday's newspaper investigation over the next 24 hours. Both Woodward and Fran Cotton, the newly appointed chairman of the RFU's Club England committee who managed Dallaglio on the 1997 Lions tour, will be hoping against hope that he comes up with all the right answers to all the big questions. They will certainly give him the benefit of any doubt. On the other hand Brian Baister, the RFU chairman and a former senior police officer, and Francis Baron, the image-conscious Twickenham chief executive, will need an awful lot of convincing.

"We're between a rock and a hard place here," said one influential RFU committee man yesterday. "We can't afford a knee-jerk reaction - there are all sorts of legal implications in a professional sport and, anyway, look where the `act now' approach got us with Carling four years ago. The union jumped too quickly and was forced to climb straight back down. Having said that, Lawrence is meant to be leading the England squad to Australia on Wednesday evening. It's hellish, to be frank with you."

Hellish indeed. A little over a week ago Peter Trunkfield, the outgoing president of the RFU, celebrated news of a political truce between the union and Cotton's recalcitrant RFU Reform Group by saying: "One of my wishes as president was to enjoy a year of peace and harmony. I believe that is how we will end the season." Well, he may have believed it on 14 May. Whether he still believes it after opening his Sunday papers yesterday is another matter entirely.

Crisis meeting,

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