Rugby Union: Johnson ready but missing Dallaglio

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The Independent Online
HE WANTED to be top dog, but not at any cost. Martin Johnson, one of two members of England's inner circle who would command an instant place in any Earth XV to play Mars, yesterday assumed the national captaincy from the second of those players, Lawrence Dallaglio, in circumstances he plainly detested. "We'll miss Lawrence as a captain, as a player, as a squad member and as a bloke," he said. "I'd rather he was still the skipper."

And so said the rest of a red rose squad cut back from 36 to 34 as a result of Dallaglio's traumatic tangle with the sharp end of the tabloid market and Will Green's more prosaic problem with a dodgy neck muscle. (Green will stay in England with his more illustrious fellow Wasp while the rest spend almost a month in the sun-lounger climate of Queensland). To a man, the tourists spoke up for their fallen leader. "The feeling in the squad," pronounced Clive Woodward, the coach, "is as you would expect. Lawrence has 100 per-cent support."

Johnson, appointed captain until the end of this autumn's World Cup, will need a similar degree of backing if England are to win a Test in Australia for the first time in nine attempts. "I'm not daunted by the prospect of leading my country, but the circumstances are a little difficult for obvious reasons.

"I'm as upset about Lawrence as everyone else and the events of the last few days have been a distraction. All we can do now as a group of rugby players is play rugby.

"We'll make the most of our time in Australia and when we get to the Olympic Stadium to face the Wallabies next month, we'll give it everything we have."

The last time Johnson left England in May for a sojourn south of the equator, he led the Lions to their famous 1997 series victory over the Springboks. On that occasion, the smart money was on his failing to complete the tour; year after year of constant chiselling and hammering at the coalface had left him weary of spirit and exhausted of body. This time, he is very much in the pink and operating at the peak of his powers. He will be an implacable enemy to the Wallabies.

"Yes, I'd played a lot of rugby before the Lions tour, but it's amazing what the southern hemisphere and a bit of sunshine can do for you. After a while, you feel a new man.

"I needed last summer off, though; the time away from rugby allowed me put in two and a half months of quality training and I'm feeling the benefit of that now. I've just had my fitness test and I'm right up there where I want to be - I completed a 3km run in something close to my best, which is good news at the end of a long domestic season."

Woodward, who flew with the squad from Heathrow last night, was understandably keen to leave the turmoil of the Dallaglio affair behind him. The squad will spend a fortnight at the Couran Cove resort on South Stradbroke Island - an unimaginably swanky rich man's complex off Queensland's Gold Coast - and, to all intents and purposes, they might as well be in Fort Knox. Security will be tight, the Wallaby media will be kept at double arm's length and news of any further upheaval back home will be strictly rationed.

Nevertheless, Woodward is determined to keep close tabs on the progress of the Rugby Football Union's inquiry into Dallaglio's calamitous discussion with the News of the World. "There is a thing called e-mail and I'll be using it to stay in touch, both with the union and with Lawrence," he said. "The issue is now in the hands of the inquiry panel, but I wouldn't expect any significant decisions to be made on Lawrence's future without my having some input."

Not surprisingly, the coach spent much of Tuesday night and yesterday impressing on his players the need for caution in the presence of the mass media - or, in the case of the News of the World reporters - apparent executives of shaving companies. "We've spoken about it, for sure, and we'll continue to talk about it," acknowledged Woodward. "What happened to Lawrence is an example of what can happen when things go wrong.

"I'm not pulling up any drawbridges - we have a extremely good working relationship with the media and I see no reasons why that shouldn't continue - but we're obviously shocked to a man by what has happened and we've been given a stark warning."

Woodward plans to deliver regular reminders to his squad that they are on duty "24 hours a day", which will be no bad thing. Whether or not any Englishman is confronted by the Australian version of a tabloid rottweiler over the next month, they will need to stay on the ball morning, noon and night if they are to fly in the face of rugby history and beat the Wallabies in their own outback.

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