Dallaglio faces his fate with wry smile

Realism without bitterness is now the mantra
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The Independent Online

Midway through a typically forthright and entertaining audience with Lawrence Dallaglio at Wasps' training ground, the FEC (in this case, former England captain) remarked that "my glass is always half-full, and I hope it will be on Monday night". Even while discussing his disappointment at his continued absence from the England squad, and the implications it has for the remaining part of his great career, Dallag-lio wanted us to know he had not forgotten tomorrow's annual dinner of the Rugby Writers' Club.

As one of life's carousers, Dallaglio has often been a leading light at this dinner, which is noted neither for its brevity nor sobriety. In January 1998 he came as the club's personality of the year, having recently been made captain of the national side (for the first time). Accepting his award, he told a variation of the old joke on crisis management handed down by his immediate England predecessor, Phil de Glanville.

"Here's three envelopes; open one each time you're faced with a major crisis," the joke had De Glanville advising the then 25-year-old Dallaglio. To cut a shaggy dog story short, the first envelope contains a note saying, "Blame the previous captain"; the second says, "Blame the press and everyone else"; the third says, "Start writing three more envelopes".

Nine years on, Dallaglio has lost his England place and - more woundingly perhaps as Wasps' imperishable talisman for more than a decade - his right to automatic selection in his club's back row. But he has not lost his sense of humour. Of the practical side of his omission from Brian Ashton's first England squad, Dallaglio remarked: "You don't get a free mattress and free phone, but I think I'll live."

Nor has he felt the need to hand three envelopes to Wasps' Alex King, even though the fly-half has captained the side on three occasions of late even when Dallaglio, the club skipper, has been in the starting XV. If it is more a matter of Dallaglio's heart and mind writing cheques his body cannot cash, then he and the Wasps coaches are facing the truth with realism rather than bitterness.

"You can't play every single week at 33 or 34, it's impossible," said Shaun Edwards, the head coach, who wants maximum points from the next two home matches: against Worcester in the Premiership today, and Perpignan in the Heineken Cup on Saturday. "All players go through a stage, for their own good, when they're rested. The reason Lawrence wasn't captain was 100 per cent to help Lawrence. The last two summers he's had surgery, and it's tough enough playing at 33 or 34 as it is without extra burdens.

"It's not a punishment, and I'd say in the last month his form has definitely improved. He was defensive player of the week over in Treviso [in December] and some of his tackling was getting back close to his best. I've always felt far too much emphasis is placed on being captain, even when I was a captain at Wigan."

This is the same Dallaglio, none the less, who is unique in that he twice held full-blown press conferences at Twickenham to relinquish the England captaincy - once by design, when he retired from international rugby in 2004; once by happenstance, after the News Of The World "sting" in 1999.

Perched on an exercise bike in a tiny ante-room next to Wasps' gym, he admitted regret over the 2004 decision (which he reversed last season with no more reward from England than four substitute appearances in the Six Nations), but it was not the venue for another grand revelation. "I feel that there's another level I can reach physically, and perhaps dominate games in a way I'm more used to doing," Dallaglio promised. He has not given up on England, he "firmly intends" to see out his Wasps contract, which runs until the summer of 2008, and he has given no consideration to coaching.

Even so, Dallaglio, like Martin Johnson, Matt Dawson and the other switched-on top brass of England's recent past, has fingers in several commercial pies, including media work, corporate hospitality at Twickenham - "finding out how difficult it is to sell an England team who aren't performing," he said with a wicked grin - and clothing stores.

The pressing problem for Wasps and England is not Father Time tapping Dallaglio on the shoulder, but how and when their teams will compensate for the loss. A Wasps supporters' message board last week listed Dan Leo (a Samoan), Joe Worsley, Johnny O'Connor of Ireland and two young Englishmen - Tom Rees and James Haskell - as more deserving than Dallaglio of back-row selection.

Rees is one of seven Wasps in Ashton's 33-man senior squad, while Haskell is in the A team. But Wasps have been losing tight matches away from home this season that, with Dallaglio in his pomp, they used to win. They are likely to be out of Europe if they lose in Castres in a fortnight.

"I'm made to feel very much part of this club," said Dallaglio, who is captain and No 8 again today, with Worsley injured and Leo absent after the death of his grandmother. "That's probably why I'm still here when there would be obvious opportunities for me elsewhere. I welcome guys like Haskell and Rees, Dan Leo has been exceptional as well, the list goes on. I like to think I was part of the process of bringing them here."