Rugby Union: Truth caught on blind side

The Dallaglio affair: After the sting, the fight for a career begins with more questions than answers
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The Independent Online
"AS SCAMS go," Sara Pearson said, "it was extremely efficient." The downfall of the England captain Lawrence Dallaglio was meticulously planned by the News of the World with the honey-trap containing an irresistible combination of a pounds 500,000 contract, an attractive blonde and a stream of champagne.

The audacity of the undercover reporters was such that the company purported to be doing the deal with Dallaglio was not some fictitious conglomerate but Gillette, the best a man can get. It was, apparently, the only name that wasn't made up. This too, was a masterstroke, for Dallaglio's image was so clean cut, his jaw so noble and prominent that he would have been a perfect subject to promote a razor.

Within a matter of days, Dallaglio and his agent Ashley Wolfe were so taken in that they invited the reporters to the Rugby Football Union Awards dinner at the Hilton in London at which Dallaglio and his Wasps team were honoured following their victory in the Tetley's Bitter Cup final. "In hindsight perhaps a company search could have been carried out, but nobody had cause to suspect anything," Pearson said. "They had headed notepaper, an e-mail address, business cards, the lot. They even got Lawrence to pose with Gillette razors at a photo shoot."

After the News of the World splashed the story last Sunday claiming that Dallaglio was a drug-taker and drug-dealer, the player held a press conference in the Spirit of Rugby suite at Twickenham on Tuesday, flanked by two executives of the PR company SPA Way. One of them was Pearson. "We specialise in dealing with crisis management and have been brought in to handle this little episode," she said. The previous day, Dallaglio had a three-hour meeting with officials of the RFU during which he denied the allegations but was nevertheless forced to stand down as England captain for the tour to Australia. The timing of the revelations was devastating.

"They were designed to cause him maximum damage," said Pearson, who has spent the week attempting an exercise in damage limitation. On Monday Dallaglio took a drugs test and was found to be "clean". "He frankly answered all the questions put to him and categorically denied the principal allegations," Brian Baister, chairman of the RFU and a former senior police officer, said.

During meetings at Langan's restaurant, the Park Lane Hilton and the Conrad Hotel at Chelsea Harbour, Dallaglio told the newspaper not just of his involvement in drugs but also of sex sessions with prostitutes in Amsterdam.

Representatives of the RFU visited the News of the World officin midweek and listened to Dallaglio's taped conversations with the reporters. The RFU were bracing themselves for fresh revelations today but almost certainly they would have been enjoying breakfast far more than seven days ago. Last week News of the World reporters were in Amsterdam making enquiries at an agency called College Girls. They made their enquiries, and true to tradition, left, almost empty handed. Their "new" evidence today is that "at 16 Dallaglio was helping to deal drugs and ferry them around for friends at his posh boarding school".

When Dallaglio faced the press at the Spirit of Rugby he read from a prepared statement, said he was "totally humiliated" and admitted he had been "foolish and naive". The thrust of his defence was that he didn't deny saying what was reported but he denied the truth of what was said. They were lying to him and he was lying to them, although neither party knew the other was lying.

Why would Dallaglio volunteer such information, including the admission that he and two team-mates took Ecstasy and cocaine during an all-day drinking party in Johannesburg following the British Lions series victory over South Africa in 1997? Last week Dallaglio said: "I categorically deny ever having used illegal drugs whether on the 1997 tour of South Africa or at any other time during my rugby career. The Lions tour wasn't that sort of trip. What I said was in response to a direct line of questioning. An atmosphere was created in which they gave the impression that they were well versed in matters pertaining to the use of illegal drugs that they would be impressed if I were to play along with it, disappointed if I did not. By pandering to the whims of these people I appreciate that I made an error in judgement which stems from naivety and foolishness on my part."

According to Pearson, an "enormous amount" of alcohol was drunk during Dallaglio's meeting with the reporters. "There were always three or four bottles of champagne, paid for in cash by the reporters. The bulk of it was drunk by Lawrence. They would have one sip to his two."

What Dallaglio did admit to was experimenting in drugs as a teenager 10 years ago. In 1989, 10 days after his 17th birthday his sister Francesca was killed in the Marchioness pleasure boat disaster on the Thames. Shortly afterwards Dallaglio, who was born in Shepherd's Bush, West London, of Anglo-Italian parents, left Ampleforth, the Benedictine public school in North Yorkshire where he had begun playing rugby.

His press conference on Tuesday was abruptly cut short by two questions, one relating to a sexual liaison with the News of the World's female reporter (Dallaglio was not allowed to answer by his PR minders) and finally: "Is it true you were expelled from Ampleforth for taking drugs?" "No," Dallaglio replied before leaving the room. Pearson pointed out that Dallaglio was "never alone in a hotel room with the female reporter for more than a few minutes".

Dallaglio's "no" was his last public utterance on the affair although he has been co-operating with the three-man panel - Bob Rogers, chairman of the RFU game regulations and a lawyer, Alan Stevens, the RFU council member for Devon and a retired police detective superintendent, and Sir John Kay, a High Court judge - appointed by the RFU to investigate the allegations. They have already begun their independent inquiry.

Pledges of support have been made by Clive Woodward, the England coach who appointed Dallaglio to the England captaincy in 1997, and his club Wasps. Dallaglio, one of the best back-row forwards in the world, is, of course, a key player to both club and country but whether he will survive this ordeal, save his pounds 400,000 a year career and re-emerge as captain of England for the World Cup, is in the hands of the inquiry team. The odds on his returning for the World Cup campaign have, on yesterday's evidence, however, dropped dramatically.

In a freak week, the limelight on the Dallaglio story was dimmed somewhat by revelations in the Sun, the News of the World's sister paper, about other celebrities and also the publication of a topless photo of Sophie Rhys-Jones, the fiancee of Prince Edward. It may yet, however, prove to be only a temporary respite.

The RFU are not unaccustomed to dealing with a captaincy crisis. In 1995 they had the notorious Will Carling affair when the England captain referred, in what he thought, was an off-camera remark, to the RFU hierarchy as "old farts". The RFU reacted hastily, sacked Carling and almost as quickly were forced to reinstate him.

The agent provocateur of that little episode was not an attractive blonde at the centre of a honey-trap but a balding television executive by the name of Greg Dyke, the man who is now being tipped to run the BBC.