Dallaglio driven to perfection

'It's a brutal game and no one is going to lie down and die. We can be reasonably happy, but no more than that'

The last time Lawrence Dallaglio led his country, the Five Nations trophy had to be smartly removed from Wembley and flown to Scotland as Wales denied England at the death. Next Sunday the prize will again be flown to Edinburgh, where Scotland, who have yet to win a match, stand between the English and an historic Six Nations Grand Slam. The silverware, barring meltdown, will be lifted by Matt Dawson, Dallaglio's successor as captain.

"I'm not happy with the way things ended," Dallaglio said, referring to Scott Gibbs' sucker punch at Wembley, "but the captaincy is not an issue for me. It depends whether you regard it as an ego thing. I have very fond memories of being captain and I enjoy theresponsibility, but it's not necessarily part of my game.

"Selection alone is a huge honour. The captain's first job is to play out of his skin. Then you take the rest with you over the trenches. You can't do that if your game is not in order. Matt Dawson's game is in very good order and he's leading by example. You never know if you're going to get another chance and he's always been ready when an opportunity arises. I'm pleased for him."

Losing to Wales was the least of Dallaglio's worries. Last summer the News of the World alleged he had been a drug taker and supplier after luring the Wasp into a honey trap, with reporters posing as executives of a companyoffering a £1m advertising deal. A Rugby Football Union disciplinary hearing cleared Dallaglio, who was caught lying on the wrong side of a scam, of all bar bringing the game into disrepute. He was ordered to pay £25,000 and lost the England captaincy.

"My world was turned upside down," he said. "It also gave me the opportunity to reflect on what had happened in my life. I hadn't had that time and space before. I knew what was true and what was untrue and I was able to remain pretty strong. I had a lot of help from my family, my club and my friends. I also made a lot of new friends. Far from pushing me away, rugby opened its arms and I had a chance to reset my goals. I've had setbacks that far exceeded what happened to me last summer."

He was talking specifically about the loss of his sister Francesca in the Marchioness disaster on the Thames in 1989. "The death of my sister was far more difficult to come to terms with. What it gave me was the strength to deal with anything that life throws at me. I have learned not to worry about things you can't control. What I can control is my fitness and frame of mind, and I was absolutely determined to be in the best possible shape."

Last week was bittersweet for the Anglo-Italian. There was England's victory over Italy in Rome - "As one would expect from the Italians, they laid on the best food and service in the tournament" - and on Wednesday a visit to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea, his favourite football club, lose to Lazio of Rome. "There is not an unpatriotic bone in my body and it sometimes hurts to see so many foreign players," he says of the Blues.

Overshadowing everything is the personal loss in a national tragedy which remains sharply in focus with the opening last week of the public inquiry into the sinking of the Marchioness. That it is taking place at all is thanks, in part, to the efforts of the Dallaglio family, especially his mother, Eileen.

"Whenever she tried to open a door it was shut in her face," Dallaglio said. "She was determined to get justice, not just for Francesca but so this wouldn't happen again. She's an enormously formidable woman. People respond to grief in different ways. I used rugby as a way of moving forward. The alternative was too painful."

The impression is that Dallaglio is playing like a man who is driven; captain or no captain, he is playing out of his skin in a marvellous back row with Richard Hill and Neil Back, which Dawson must find a joy.

"The back row always gets the adulation," Dallaglio said, "but the role of the five guys in front is crucial. Clive Woodward always wants a back row capable of exploiting space, but that space is only created by the unglamorous work of the guys in front. In Paris Phil Vickery and Jason Leonard put in 17 tackles each, which freed us up to do other things. Similarly, Simon Shaw and Garath Archer are hitting 40 rucks a game.

"It allows Neil, Richard and myself to do the things we are picked for. We complement each other and I enjoy playing with them because they meet tremendously high standards. We have built a relationship and a trust which is still developing. You have to get the balance right, not just in the back row but the whole pack. You know when you have it. You feel it."

England have found it but, despite rave notices this season, Dallaglio says they still have a long way to go. "We are a young side that have not evolved but are still evolving. The nucleus should be around for the World Cup in 2003. We are starting to build for that now. We are still learning the lessons of the last World Cup.

"Our defeats to New Zealand and South Africa suggested that not that much has changed. We are rectifying that. The Six Nations is valuable, but if you want to be the best you have to measure yourself against the best, and the pecking order has been dominated by Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Thank God the Australians don't play soccer too well."

England piled up the points against Ireland, Wales and Italy, scoring 19 tries, but were restricted to penalties in the15-9 victory over France in Paris. "Had that result gone the other way we'd have been looking at an average season," Dallaglio said. "There have been chunks of good play and we've scored some super tries, but there have also been times when we've been poor.

"We seem to have needed half-time to work things out, against Wales and Italy for example, and against more formidable opposition you're not afforded that luxury. But perhaps England sides of the past would have waited until the 80th minute to ask why we didn't do this or that. We've learned to become a lot more flexible and to think on our feet. That's the hallmark of the southern-hemisphere teams. It's a brutal game, and no matter who you're playing they're not going to lie down and die. Our defence is better than it was in the World Cup and we can be reasonably happy, but no more than that."

When England were odds-on for the Slam and fell at the final hurdle to Scotland at Murrayfield 10 years ago, Dallaglio was a teenager watching the match on TV. "An upset is always possible and that clearly was an upset. I felt for the players. You can allow a mental scar to remain or move forward. After 1990 England enjoyed some pretty good times. Things happen for a reason and they can produce a positiveeffect. In rugby you have to learn pretty quickly or you get dropped or you get hurt."

At 27, Dallaglio will win his 38th cap in Edinburgh. Apart from training with Wasps and England, he has his personal adviser, Margot Wells, the wife of the Scottish sprinter Allan. "She helps to improve myexplosive power and speed. When you're an international your requirements alter,because the game is so farremoved from everyday life. All the fitness in the world isn't going to help if your mentalapproach isn't right, and that's something you've either got or you haven't. Wasps have given me everything, but I play rugby to play for England.

"I'm determined to continue to improve and learn from every experience, on and off the field. I still have a tremendous amount to achieve. That's what drives you on."