Rugby Union: Woodward stands by Dallaglio

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The Independent Online
LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO may be engaged in a pitched battle to save his international rugby career, but he is by no means alone in the trenches. Clive Woodward, the England coach who built an entire World Cup strategy around the beleaguered Wasps flanker, is also in there fighting after offering his captain "total support" in his efforts to rid himself of the stain of last Sunday's tabloid allegations of drug abuse. "I think Lawrence is innocent. He's not trying to hide anything and I want him to come out of this on the right side," insisted Woodward at Twickenham last night.

If Dallaglio is indeed innocent - his guilt or otherwise will be the subject of an immediate Rugby Football Union inquiry described by Brian Baister, the chairman of the governing body, as "the most thorough investigation imaginable" - his eventual return to the England side is pretty much guaranteed. As it stands, though, he is suddenly an outsider looking in: his withdrawal from the summer tour of Australia, on which his countrymen embark tomorrow, has not only cost him a cap against the Wallabies, but the chance to lead England in this autumn's World Cup.

Martin Johnson, the Leicester lock forward who ran Dallaglio close when Woodward selected his skipper 19 months ago, will captain England both in Australia and in this October's showpiece tournament. "I'd have had no qualms about picking Martin in the first place," said the coach. "I've spoken to him at length and told him that we have to move quickly on. I'd be lying if I said the events of the last day or so haven't been a setback - it's been extremely difficult, not least because I'm very close to Lawrence and his young family - but it's up to me to manage this through."

Johnson unquestionably possesses the wherewithal, both physical and temperamental, to make a fist of the England job; his guidance of the Lions in South Africa two years ago marked him out as a captain of world stature and he has just skippered Leicester to an Allied Dunbar Premiership triumph that could hardly have been more convincing. But he will be leading his country under the shadow of unfinished business, for the Dallaglio Affair threatens to run and run.

Baister, a former deputy Chief Constable of Cheshire, gave no indication last night of how long the inquiry would last, or whether Dallaglio could return to the England side before a conclusion had been reached. "This whole episode in the life of the union has lasted a very short time and, while we have met the individual concerned and he has been open and frank in his explanations, it would be totally presumptuous to predict when, or indeed whether, he might play for England again," he said. "I would hope that any man exonerated of such allegations as these would be reinstated, but even in the event of that, Lawrence will not captain England until after the World Cup."

Dallaglio was interviewed in Wolverhampton yesterday by a six-man panel possessing immense rugby clout: Baister and Woodward were joined by Peter Trunkfield, the RFU president, and Francis Baron, the union's chief executive, as well as two prominent committee members and former England captains, Fran Cotton and Bill Beaumont. The player subsequently issued a statement "categorically denying" all the major elements of Sunday's report in the News of the World and, through the union, indicated that he would reject the allegations personally at a press conference today.

In addition, he will provide the union with blood and urine samples, even though he is not flying to Australia tomorrow. "Those samples will be analysed within 24 hours," said Baister, adding that all touring players would be tested before leaving for the airport. However, the investigation into allegations that Dallaglio and two colleagues took both Ecstasy and cocaine during the '97 Lions tour will take rather longer to complete. Cotton, who managed the victorious party, remained staggered at the very thought of drug abuse during the series against the Springboks.

"The allegations are the very antithesis of what that tour was all about," he said. "Those players showed enormous dedication and Lawrence, who in my view conducted himself in exemplary fashion throughout the two months in South Africa, has assured us that the report is untrue and unfounded. We went through all levels of pressure during our time on tour and, quite honestly, the discipline surpassed anything I've ever encountered in rugby."

Woodward admitted he had not even considered calling up a replacement for Dallaglio for the Australian tour.

Somehow, the issue seems distinctly trivial compared with what has gone before.

England's loss, page 27

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