Rugby Union: Judgement day dawns brighter for Dallaglio

Former England rugby union captain has powerful friends as he faces a charge of disrepute today.
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The Independent Online
THE MOST important five days in Lawrence Dallaglio's sporting career did not begin quite as he would have wished. While England's hale and hearty rugby hero, once as spotless as a freshly ironed sheet but now blackened and besmirched by tabloid scandal, relished the opportunity to share in the three-figure obliteration of the United States on Saturday evening, he would have preferred not to have been selected for the random drug-testing session after the game.

But tested he was, in company with the American captain, Dan Lyle. He was given an almighty ribbing from his team-mates - rugby types are not backwards in coming forwards on the gallows humour front - but with a drug abuse charge hanging over his head and a disciplinary hearing less than four days distant, Dallaglio would have been less than human had he not wondered whether the Gods were toying with him. "It really was taking the you know what," said one of his red rose colleagues yesterday. "Maybe it was meant to be."

Little that has happened to Dallaglio over the last three months was meant to be - at least, not meant by him. He did not mean to forfeit the England captaincy in circumstances so depressingly squalid that they made the latter years of Will Carling's career look beatific by comparison, any more than he meant to talk the hind legs off two under-cover News of the World journalists in a London hotel room. There was drink involved, lots of it, not to mention trickery and subterfuge and duplicity and, perhaps for the first time in his life, the streetwise boy from Shepherd's Bush failed to smell a rat. He was taken to the cleaners and emerged eyebrow-deep in muck.

Yet today an extremely august High Court judge and two badged and blazered representatives of Twickenham old fartism may permit the 27-year-old Wasp to participate in this autumn's World Cup. The sole charge now laid against him, one of bringing the game into disrepute, is imprecise in its definition and gives Mr Justice Popplewell and his disciplinary panel room to manoeuvre. Had a second, startlingly specific charge - that Dallaglio celebrated the Lions' victory over South Africa in 1997 by taking ecstasy and cocaine with two team-mates - not been dropped by the Rugby Football Union late on Monday evening, the tribunal would have been strait-jacketed. A guilty verdict could only have meant a two-year suspension and blood on the walls.

Dallaglio is not out of the thicket by any means, but he will be feeling a whole lot better about his World Cup chances this morning than he did 48 hours ago. Not least because he has friends in high places, two of them worth their weight in any currency you care to name. George Carman QC is a legal heavyweight who can dance like Ali and punch like Frazier.

When Sir John Kay and his independent inquiry team convened in an effort to work out whether the accused was telling the truth about being a liar - he claimed he had invented stories about his drug-taking exploits simply to impress his tempters - the sudden appearance of Dallaglio's brief must have concentrated their minds wonderfully.

And then there is Clive Woodward, one of the few active participants to have emerged from this shambolic episode with his reputation in one piece. He decided early that Dallaglio was innocent; so early, in fact, that the great unwashed had scarcely had a chance to digest the News of the World's five-page `expose'.

He went on the record at every opportunity to plead his friend's case, he told the RFU hierarchy exactly what he thought of them when they attempted to block Dallaglio's return to the England squad for World Cup training and, last weekend, he hit the roof over the decision to lay a formal charge of drug-taking at his former captain's door. If the best No 8 in England is not in Woodward's side when the serious stuff starts in October, it will not be for want of effort from the coach.

Now that the drugs charge has been consigned to the cesspit of sporting history, Dallaglio is an even-money favourite to face Italy, the land of his father, in England's opening World Cup match in a little over five weeks. Should the disrepute accusation be made to stick at today's tribunal, he will almost certainly be fined; this is, after all, a professional age.

Suspension remains a danger, for his appearance at Twickenham last weekend appears to rule out any ban of the retrospective variety, but the panel may well consider the loss of the captaincy to have been sufficient punishment in itself and send him off with a flea in his ear. When all is said and done, his drugs talk concerned "recreational" chemicals, not performance- enhancing ones. He can be accused of stupidity, greed, arrogance or rampant braggadocio, but not of cheating.

Whatever the outcome, the sight of so many protagonists jostling for a foothold on the moral low ground has made depressives of us all. That Dallaglio should be asking the country to believe his odd explanation - "Honest guv, I'm a liar" - is almost as deflating as the News of the Screws justifying its deception on the grounds of public interest. Heaven knows, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein drove Nixon out of the White House without once claiming to be anything other than Washington Post journalists.

We have seen fair-minded pillars of the RFU establishment - the Brian Baisters and Peter Trunkfields and Roy Manocks - tip-toeing through a veritable minefield and being blown up at every turn. At the other end of the ethical spectrum, we have seen one of the original tribunal members, Keith Plain, announce his own judgement on the case in the pages of a Sunday newspaper for which the accused once wrote a column.

And in every corner of the country we have seen parents attempting to explain the whys and wherefores to rugby-playing 10-year-olds for whom Dallaglio was one step down from God. "Does Lawrence really take drugs, dad?" "No son, he just made it up." "Why would he do that, dad?" "Off to bed now, there's a good lad."

And now, 95 days since Dallaglio woke up in a swanky hotel in Bath to find his name in red lights and his career collapsing around him, he is about to give a full public account of his actions. In an unprecedented outbreak of glasnost, the RFU has decided to open its doors to the press. What started with a headline on 23 May will end with a hundred headlines tomorrow. Then, perhaps, we can get on with the game.

THE MEN WHO WILL DECIDE DALLAGLIO'S DESTINY

SIR OLIVER POPPLEWELL

A 72-year-old sports enthusiast who lists tennis, sailing and cricket - he is a member of the MCC - among his interests in the latest Who's Who, Sir Oliver sits as a High Court judge in the Queen's Bench Division and has done so since 1983. A former vice-chairman of the Parole Board and the president of the Employment Appeal Tribunal between 1986 and 1988, he is the father of the former Somerset cricketer, Nigel Popplewell. A very serious chairman of the disciplinary panel. But then, it is a very serious case.

JOHN SPENCER

Spencer and Duckham, Duckham and Spencer: the two names go together in much the same way as Butterfield and Davies, or Carling and Guscott, and occupy an elevated position in England's midfield pantheon. John Spencer of Cambridge University (he would play his club rugby with Headingley) made his international debut in Dublin in 1969 (as did David Duckham) and scored two tries in the 1970 Five Nations. He captained his country on four occasions. A new Rugby Football Union council member, he represents Yorkshire.

CAPTAIN CHRIS TUFFLEY

In many ways a symbol of the "old" RFU, Chris Tuffley represents the Royal Marines and Royal Navy on the union's top-heavy full council. His presence today is down to the latest outbreak of controversy surrounding the Dallaglio scandal. Keith Plain of Gloucestershire had been scheduled to sit on the panel, but his decision to discuss the case with one of the tabloids who went after Dallaglio most vigorously - and, more worryingly, to air his views on sentencing before actually hearing the evidence - ended his involvement.

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