Rugby: Woodward calls Dallaglio in from Exile

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The Independent Online
AT A conservative estimate, 90 per cent of England's rugby public assumed Lawrence Dallaglio was history from the moment he was hung out to dry by the tabloid rottweilers three long and bitter months ago. Luckily for the shop-soiled red rose hero, his immediate boss immediately declared himself among the minority. Dallaglio will resume his international career against the United States at Twickenham on Saturday and if Clive Woodward, his endlessly supportive Test coach, has any say in the matter, he will also play in this autumn's World Cup.

Woodward has fought tooth and nail for his former captain since allegations of "recreational" drug misuse and a variety of other dark and dodgy deeds were first published in the New of the World in May, and he is still fighting. "Ever since Lawrence came to my house on that first Sunday morning and explained what had happened, I've believed in his innocence," he said yesterday. "I continue to believe in it and I also believe he will play in the World Cup. I hope I would have done the same for any England player finding himself in Lawrence's position. It's a matter of innocent until proven guilty."

Next Wednesday, both Woodward and Dallaglio will learn whether that proof exists. The 27-year-old Wasp faces a Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal to answer charges of bringing the game into disrepute - an accusation even his closest supporters refer to as "bang to rights" - and, far more seriously, one of drug misuse during the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa. His World Cup ambitions hinge on the latter verdict and while some of the RFU's legal eagles insist he has a case to answer, rather more members of the old fart community believe there is no hard evidence against the defendant and, by extension, that the charge should be dropped.

Not surprisingly, given the delicacy of an unprecedented situation, Woodward refused to be drawn on whether or not he was disappointed that the second, more threatening charge had been laid. But he said: "I actually think the RFU has conducted itself pretty well. This matter has dragged on for a long time, but it's dragged on for the right reasons. A player's reputation is on the line here and you can't rush these things just because there's a World Cup around the corner. The decision to play him this weekend is solely mine; while I've kept the RFU aware of my plans, I pick the team."

One person who clearly does not pick the team is Brian Baister, the RFU chairman, who insisted in June that Dallaglio could not return to England duty until the disciplinary machinery had run its course. While Woodward denied pressurising the chairman into a volte-face - he simply congratulated him on being "strong enough to change his mind" - Baister's U-turn underlines just how twisted the Twickenham knickers have become in the face of the most lurid scandal in the history of the game.

Usually so relaxed with the media, Dallaglio gave yesterday's proceedings an almighty sidestep; he simply issued a bland statement thanking Woodward and his team-mates for their support and confirmed his own high level of fitness. Ironically, his presence alongside Richard Hill and Neil Back in a familiar back-row combination raised few eyebrows from the tactical point of view. The real action was in the front row, where a rejuvenated Graham Rowntree joins two West Countrymen, Phil Greening and Phil Vickery, in a collective bid to upset the scrummaging status quo just six weeks short of the forthcoming showpiece.

Rowntree did himself no end of good in Tuesday night's second-string victory over the Americans and, given the dearth of quality loose head specialists, a half-decent 80 minutes on Saturday will earn him a place in Woodward's final 30. Greening, fast becoming a handful in the right sense rather than the wrong one, is beginning to generate some heat on Richard Cockerill, the incumbent hooker, while Vickery's long-awaited return from neck trouble provides the bump-and-grind department with some good, old-fashioned agricultural muscle.

The coach was especially excited by Greening's recent progress. "He's an outstanding talent and I'm keen to see him under Test pressure," he said. Dallaglio, of course, will be under pressure of a different kind.

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