Rugby Union: Message is the key issue

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The Independent Online
IT MAY be laying it on a bit thick to say that England's chances in the rugby World Cup depend on what fate has in store for Lawrence Dallaglio, but don't underestimate his value to the team. They won't miss him as a captain but they most certainly will as a player.

It may be alarmist to talk about the danger to the game as a whole if he is unable to explain away any more allegations concerning drugs but rugby's image is at a highly vulnerable stage and untold harm could be done to it if this develops into a full-scale scandal.

I can promise you that no one I have met in rugby over the past week is taking a light-hearted view of the issue. Dallaglio is much admired as a man and a player, and everyone is banking on there being a satisfactory ending to the affair, but no one envies the task the Rugby Football Union's inquiry team are facing.

I did a television interview with Will Carling on Wednesday and recalled that it wasn't long ago that he came out with his "old farts" statement. The fuss created over that was colossal and yet it pales into insignificance compared to this episode.

There is more than the tender feelings of old-time administrators to be considered here. A new breed has emerged in charge at Twickenham and all the in-fighting they have endured will have hardened them up to the demands of the modern game. When they make their decision there must not be even a small trace of whitewash. Any sign of weakness in this direction will give out totally the wrong signals.

It may be considered rich for rugby to climb on its high horse when you think of its rowdy, beer-sodden past but we are dealing with a new menace. When I was playing, I socialised with the best of them, and held my own with the thirstiest, and it was accepted as part of the game's culture. But drugs never even entered the edge of our merry-making and the very thought of it scares me.

I'm not naive enough to think it doesn't go on but I haven't been aware of it. And I certainly don't agree with those who argue that there's no difference between consuming 12 pints of beer and taking a line of cocaine. Drinking large quantities of beer may not be the brightest thing to do but at least you do it in the open and in the company of all your pals - and it is legal. Drug-taking is an unlawful, furtive evil and, as the father of three children, it frightens me.

Although I feel very supportive of Lawrence, I am a hard-liner when it comes to drugs and that's why I'm looking forward to him being cleared. He was foolish to allow himself to get trapped into that situation but at least we can be sure that he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Sadly, things will never be the same for him again whatever happens. People, especially opponents, are not likely to let him forget his lapses and it will be a test of his strength of character. The one advantage he has is that he remains a world-class player. With their strength in depth, England have several good enough to step into the breach but, individually, none of them would offer the range of abilities that he brings to the back row. Martin Corry would be the obvious replacement. He has had a big year as Leicester's No 8 and is dynamic and abrasive.

He would certainly suit England in the more physical games but coach Clive Woodward might plump for Tony Diprose, a more complete footballer, in others. But Dallaglio offers more. He can play six, seven or eight, is a quick decision-maker and even gives them another option in the line- out. Make no mistake, England will be the poorer without him in the World Cup. It is a toss-up who needs who the most because rugby is his only way to redeem himself. We all pray that he can do just that.