Rugby Union: Sympathy for bedevilled Dallaglio

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD did not sound best pleased with Lawrence Dallaglio yesterday: an entire lexicon of uncomplimentary descriptions - from "naive and stupid" to "a complete prat" - were aimed at the former England captain by his national coach. But Woodward also re-asserted his belief in Dallaglio's innocence of the principal allegations contained in last Sunday's now notorious News of the World expose, and he was by no means alone in voicing his support. The rugby union community is beginning to close ranks around its favourite son.

The prevailing emotions at Twickenham as the most serious scandal in English rugby history entered its third depressing day were intense sympathy for Dallaglio and deep resentment at the methods employed by a pair of tabloid reporters in trapping their prey; methods that, according to Woodward, involved considerable amounts of alcohol. "Sheer bloody deception, pure and simple," snarled one senior Rugby Football Union official.

"The legal ramifications of this are going to be very, very interesting," added a Wasps committee man. "Why should they get away with it? In any other walk of life, there would be hell to pay."

Dallaglio, a Wasp since his late teens, had an emotional meeting with the club hierarchy on Monday night, offering them the same explanation he had offered a high-powered RFU disciplinary panel in Castlecroft earlier in the day. "You look for consistency in this sort of situation and Lawrence has been entirely consistent in his dealings with us," said Simon Crane, the chief executive of Loftus Road plc, Wasps' parent company. "We'll be guided by the findings of the RFU inquiry, obviously; our final response will not be an emotional one. But we believe in Lawrence and he has been credible in the things he has told us. As a club, we support him. That's what clubs do."

It is now clear that Dallaglio's response to questioning by both the RFU and his club was far more detailed than the one he produced during yesterday's press conference. For all his experience of life in the media spotlight, he looked badly shaken by the hostile, claustrophobic atmosphere generated by the gathering in Twickenham's Spirit of Rugby suite. He was close to tears on several occasions and as the public interrogation over his drug-taking past gathered pace - he had admitted to experimenting with unnamed substances during his teens - he cut short the session and headed for the door.

He shed no meaningful light on the most damaging aspect of the tabloid charges - the claim that he and two fellow British Lions took ecstasy and cocaine during the tour of South Africa in 1997. Perhaps he put up the shutters on legal advice, perhaps he simply could not bring himself to discuss the subject with any real candour. Whatever the reason, he repeatedly side-stepped the issue, leaving Woodward and the RFU wondering whether their journalistic nemesis might drop another bombshell or two at the weekend.

For all that, the coach admired his performance in adversity. "I thought he was unbelievably brave to front up in the way he did," said Woodward, at whose Berkshire home Dallaglio had spent much of the previous two days. "We've had time to go through exactly what happened in that hotel room; I've had the full version and he was totally set up. He was sitting at a table with two people he believed to be representing Gillette, they had a lot to drink and they led him up the line of talking about drugs and all that stuff. Because he was so keen to impress them, he started bragging and saying things that he's lived to regret.

"He's been naive and he's been stupid, but he's been no more than that; it's certainly not a reason to hang someone, or ruin their life. The News of the World have had their scoop; they should now co-operate totally with the union inquiry by handing over all the tapes, all the evidence, and come clean as to how this happened, as Lawrence has done. I want him to rejoin the England squad and I want him to rejoin quickly."

The RFU yesterday appointed two of its own, Bob Rogers and Alan Stevens, to sit on a three-man inquiry panel: Rogers, a lawyer, chairs the union's game regulations committee, while Stevens, a retired police detective superintendent, is the RFU council member for Devon. "We have made these appointments now because we have an imminent meeting with the News of the World and it is important that those carrying out the investigation are there," said Brian Baister, the RFU chairman.

The third member of the panel was appointed late yesterday. He is Sir John Kay, a High Court judge of the Queen's Bench Division. Sir John, 55, who joins the panel tomorrow, is independent of the RFU and has no formal connection with Twickenham.

There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of RFU members want to see Dallaglio cleared; if the panel returns a guilty verdict, the least their shop-soiled icon could expect would be a two-year ban in line with International Olympic Committee guidelines on drug abuse. To win an acquittal, the accused will need to explain to the investigators why an intelligent adult - and Dallaglio has one of the sharpest minds of any recent England captain - should construct a tissue of nasty, self-destructive lies, simply to impress a couple of total strangers.

That he has convinced both his club and his union of the veracity of his story gives him hope. But as Nigel Melville, the Wasps coach, admitted, these are perilous waters. "Lawrence knows this could destroy him; the best-case scenario is that he plays for England in the World Cup, but the worst-case scenario is that he doesn't play rugby again. I have no reason to disbelieve the things he has told me, but he must stand and fight his corner in the same way as he plays his sport: honest, up front and in your face."

Dallaglio was hardly his old self yesterday - how could he have been? - but he intends to do precisely that.