The last time Lawrence Dallaglio captained England in front of the Twickenham faithful, almost exactly five years and precisely 58 international matches ago, there was more chance of Lord Lucan making an appearance off the bench than of the red-rose army scoring a try. England won all right, beating the French with the help of seven penalties from some bloke called Wilkinson, but it was hardly a victory in the grand style. Dallaglio expects a whole lot more against Ireland on Saturday, when he completes the last few yards of his long road to redemption.
"We always set ourselves two objectives: the first is to win, the second is to play to our potential," Dallaglio said yesterday. "During the World Cup in Australia, we clearly achieved the first of those by winning the tournament. We did not achieve the second, however. I think we accept as a group that we did not play our best rugby, that we failed to play the game we wanted to play. This weekend, when we run out at Twickenham for the first time as world champions, we have an opportunity to deliver the kind of performance we talk about in training. And it may well be that to beat the Irish, we will have to deliver it."
Rarely, if ever, has Dallaglio seemed more motivated for an afternoon's thud and blunder in the white shirt of his country. Stripped of the captaincy after his notorious run-in with Fleet Street's Rottweiler breed in the cruel spring of 1999 - a spring that also saw England throw away a Grand Slam in the space of 80 self-defeating minutes against the Welsh at Wembley Stadium - there were many moments when the celebrated No 8 from Wasps accepted that whatever happened in the rest of his career, he would never again be first out of the tunnel at Twickenham. That he now finds himself in this position says everything that needs saying about a spirit that borders on the inextinguishable.
"It is a special occasion, and I don't underestimate it," he acknowledged. "But it would be wrong to make out that this match is more special for me than for anyone else. The stakes get higher with every game, because each time we win, the desire of our opponents grows greater. Everyone wants to beat us and this fixture, in particular, has the makings of a very tight match, which is what Test rugby is all about. The prospect excites me, as it excites all of us."
Strange to relate, Dallaglio may in fact be second out of the tunnel. Will Greenwood, the Harlequins centre and England vice-captain, plays his 50th Test this weekend, and will probably be forced by his admiring colleagues to make a solo entrance into the public forum. But there will be no mistaking the identity of the Boss Man. Dallaglio has been stoking the fires all week - yesterday, he talked of "passion, pride and intensity" in a tone that transmitted itself to Dublin without the aid of a radio microphone - and he is in no mood to be pushed around.
Aware that the retirement of Martin Johnson and the injury suffered by Danny Grewcock has left England without a natural "enforcer" - in other words, a big chunk of 24-carat nasty in the second row - he has gone out of his way to remind Steve Borthwick and Ben Kay of their responsibilities. "People have been questioning whether we are physical enough, tough enough," he said, with a hint of a snarl. "All I will say is that as international players, we must recognise reality. Before we can play any sort of rugby, and especially the sort of rugby we want to play, we have to win the confrontations and the collisions, to show some authority and establish domination. It is true to say that in the cases of Martin and Danny, their strengths lay largely in those areas. I expect Ben and Steve to respond to the challenge."
Talking of challenges, Colin Charvis has been recalled by Wales as open-side flanker and captain for Sunday's match with France in Cardiff - a game crucial to the Red Dragonhood after their desperately poor performance against Ireland in Dublin 11 days ago. Charvis replaces Martyn Williams in both roles while Michael Owen, outstanding for the Newport-Gwent Dragons in recent matches, gets the nod in the second row ahead of Robert Sidoli.
Mark Taylor, a Lion in Australia in 2001, returns at outside centre for the injured Sonny Parker, while Gethin Jenkins starts at tight-head prop in the absence of Adam Jones, who hurt a knee on Celtic League duty last Friday night.
The French have recalled Frédéric Michalak at outside-half and promoted Thomas Lièvremont to their first-choice back row ahead of the inconsistent Olivier Magne.
* Bath's appeal against a £10,000 fine imposed for failing to fulfil their A team fixture against Wasps will be referred to the board of England Rugby Ltd for further consideration.
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