Rugby Union: Strange end to Dallaglio `humiliation'

Both sides blame newspaper on judgement day for England's rugby captain
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The Independent Online
THERE WAS no trial of Lawrence Dallaglio in the hot, sweaty surroundings of Twickenham's Seminar Room No 2 yesterday; by the simple expedient of admitting the one remaining charge against him - that, by blabbing to two incorrigible tabloid hard nuts last May, he brought the game of rugby into disrepute - he side-stepped the humiliation of a public grilling about accusations of illegal drugs and shameful dishonesty and a dozen other phantoms that have haunted him from the moment the News of the World hit the streets on 23 May. But there was a trial of sorts, and the defendant was journalism itself.

Or rather, journalism's rottweiler element. That Dallaglio's lawyer, the ever-formidable George Carman QC, elected to defend his client by attacking the original attackers was hardly a surprise. What was interesting was that Richard Lissack QC, appearing on behalf of the Rugby Football Union and, to all intents and purposes, for the prosecution, took precisely the same approach. By the time Lissack had completed his opening submission, he had accused the newspaper of "subterfuge" and of luring Dallaglio into an "elaborate and sophisticated trap", the purpose of which was to persuade the then England captain to "talk in lurid terms about the extremes of his lifestyle".

He did not stop there. He concluded, stingingly: "The RFU wishes to dissociate itself from the conduct of the News of the World: conduct that was at best questionable and, some may think, very hard to justify." At which point, Carman must almost have felt that his task had been performed for him. Try as he might, he could not improve on his opponent's sneering contempt for the way Dallaglio had been turned over. "It was gross and unfair entrapment of the worst kind," he thundered, acutely aware that his thunder had already been stolen.

Dallaglio, neatly turned out in his best bib and tucker, sat ramrod straight and stared intently into space. Only rarely did he glance at the three- man disciplinary panel, chaired by Mr Justice Popplewell and completed by two RFU council members, John Spencer and Chris Tuffley, and he spoke just once, to confirm that he had rejoined England's World Cup training squad on 19 July. But there was the occasional flinch, the odd squirm of discomfort, as the grisly details of his three-month ordeal were laid bare for public scrutiny.

When Carman described the effect of the scandal on his client's nearest and dearest - "It is no exaggeration to say it has been a total nightmare: his family life has been dislocated, his privacy frequently invaded and his parents have become unwell," he said - Dallaglio hung his head as abjectly as any accused in sporting history. When Nigel Melville, the Wasps coach who appeared as a character witness in support of his player, recalled the moment when Dallaglio learned of his folly while on a family break in Bath - "He felt devastated, helpless; he couldn't go home because of the journalists, he couldn't answer his mobile, he felt like a fugitive" - the agonies returned.

And then there were Lissack's comments on the drug abuse charge so abruptly dropped by the RFU on Monday night. These were dangerous waters for Dallaglio, the quicksand into which his World Cup hopes might easily disappear. Lissack told the tribunal that Dallaglio, accused of taking ecstasy and cocaine in the presidential suite of the Intercontinental Hotel in Johannesburg after the final Lions-Springboks Test in 1997, had lied to the RFU inquiry team led by Sir John Kay.

"He chose not to reveal the truth on that occasion; he said he did not know there was such a hotel and that he had certainly never been there. However, on 18 August, he provided the disciplinary officer of the RFU with a true account, acknowledging his presence in the presidential suite. It has been made plain on his behalf that he did not provide this evidence before in order to protect the confidences of those present with him. This new evidence has been examined, tested and compared with other evidence. There is no proof of drug-taking by Mr Dallaglio."

Not surprisingly, Carman gave the presidential suite and all that may or may not have happened behind its doors the widest of wide berths. He did not mention Johannesburg or the Lions at all. What he concentrated on was Dallaglio the victim, not Dallaglio the liar, and the picture he painted of the two under-cover newspaper "investigators", who posed as senior executives of Gillette, the toiletries company, and tempted their quarry with promises of a seven-figure sponsorship deal, did not smell remotely pleasant.

The male journalist had been introduced to Dallaglio as "a party animal who likes to let his hair down"; the female journalist as "bubbly, a girl who likes a good time". The woman, said Mr Carman, twice contacted Dallaglio after the initial meeting, once asking him to join her and a female friend for a night out, then inviting him to her hotel room "to have fun". When the three met for a second time, the journalists "talked freely about their own use of drugs and their sexual behaviour and asked my client to provide drugs".

In closing, Carman addressed the panel in frankly emotional terms. "Mr Dallaglio's part in this is limited to naivety, to intemperate and foolish invention as a result of being exhorted to humour two so-called executives, and some might say he has suffered enough. If that does not satisfy justice, I ask you to place this at the very lowest end of the disrepute scale and put in the balance his character and achievements, his courage and contribution to the game. Exceptional cases require exceptional decisions and this is such a case. The penalty should be tempered with profound mercy and profound understanding."

And when the moment came, the sentence reflected everything the Dallaglio camp had requested. As Mr Justice Popplewell shuffled his papers together and rose to signal the end of three months of rugby purgatory, he looked at the shop-soiled Wasp sitting rigidly in his chair and said: "We wish Mr Dallaglio and England success in the World Cup." Amen.

SAGA UNFOLDS

24 May: Dallaglio resigns as England captain after allegations in the News of the World that he took drugs, which he flatly denies. Martin Johnson of Leicester appointed captain for tour of Australia and World Cup.

9 July: Rugby Football Union announce Dallaglio will be readmitted to England training session on 19 July.

4 August: Charged by RFU with bringing the game into disrepute and with taking recreational drugs during 1997 Lions Tour of South Africa.

18 August: Recalled to the England team for the international against the United States.

21 August: Plays prominent role as England beat United States 106-8.

23 August: Drugs charge against Dallaglio dropped less than 48 hours before his Twickenham hearing after new evidence emerges.

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