Dallaglio poised to play Popeye in 'House of Pain'

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The Independent Online

Two stints as England captain, World Cup winner's medals at 15s and sevens, a couple of Lions tours, a Grand Slam, a domestic-European club double, back-to-back Premierships, a joyous run of knock-out cup success, a grisly flirtation with the rottweiler end of British journalism, a knee injury serious enough to have incapacitated a lesser athlete for life... Lawrence Dallaglio has experienced pretty much everything rugby has to offer and enjoyed the vast majority of it.

Two stints as England captain, World Cup winner's medals at 15s and sevens, a couple of Lions tours, a Grand Slam, a domestic-European club double, back-to-back Premierships, a joyous run of knock-out cup success, a grisly flirtation with the rottweiler end of British journalism, a knee injury serious enough to have incapacitated a lesser athlete for life... Lawrence Dallaglio has experienced pretty much everything rugby has to offer and enjoyed the vast majority of it.

He has not, however, won a match at the "House of Pain" in Dunedin, for the very good reason that he has never set foot in the place - or even in the half of New Zealand in which the famous old stadium is situated. Judging by the glint in his eye and the jut of a jaw he can only have borrowed from Popeye, he has every intention of addressing the issue in Dunedin on Saturday. "I am looking forward to this match," he said yesterday, "as much as any I've ever played." Dallaglio is no stranger to hyperbole, but there was no hint of exaggeration in his tone.

The Londoner is not a great one for comparing his powers of leadership to those of his immediate predecessor, Martin Johnson; it is, after all, a fairly thankless task. But he would dearly love a victory over the All Blacks this weekend as a means of re-establishing his credentials in the eyes of a demanding red rose public after the disappointments of the Six Nations' Championship. No one blamed the losses to Ireland and France on Dallaglio's captaincy, but the proximity of those setbacks to Johnson's retirement from Test rugby was far from helpful.

This time last year, England visited New Zealand under Johnson and won a remarkable Test in Wellington - remarkable for the durability of the tourists' pack under pressure and the unparalleled genius of Jonny Wilkinson's goal-kicking. But that side had been together for years and had developed a sense of togetherness way beyond the norm. Dallaglio's team here is nowhere near as familiar, either with the terrace connoisseurs or with each other. Once again, the Wasps No 8 finds himself in a comparatively awkward position.

"In technical terms, that Wellington match was our poorest of the year leading into the World Cup," Dallaglio said. "The familiarity and belief, the spirit in the side, brought us through a difficult situation. There have been a number of changes in personnel since then - apart from anything else, we've had to absorb some high-profile retirements - and that means we cannot afford to make last year's mistakes this weekend. We'll have to be much better, just to stay in the game.

"Will we be good enough? I'd like to think so. Yes, we will have to improve standards across the board, but the people in this team have played a lot of quality rugby since last September and are bang in form. A lot has been said about tiredness, but I think it's good to come to the southern hemisphere at this time of year. We've all been doing the hard stuff recently and are in a good position to step up to the international stage, where the think-time is shorter and reactions have to be quicker. New Zealand, on the other hand, haven't played a Test since the World Cup. We're very aware of that."

England have lost as many natural leaders in five months as the aforementioned Wilkinson has scored international tries: Johnson, Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Kyran Bracken and Dorian West all captained their country, and all are wallowing in the warm bath of retirement. The likes of Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Matthew Dawson may know what it is to call the shots at this rarified level of the game, but there is not the same weight of authority in this party.

Significantly, the All Blacks have a number of players well versed in the art of command. Tana Umaga is the new captain - the centre brings 53 Tests' worth of experience to the table - and he has Justin Marshall, a former All Black leader, at scrum-half. Up front, the brilliant Richie McCaw has been awarded the vice-captaincy, and two other loose forwards, the Waikato flanker Jono Gibbes and the Auckland No 8 Xavier Rush, head up their respective Super 12 teams. There will be no shortage of silver-ferned voices at Carisbrook on Saturday.

"Leadership is a central part of the game, and leadership in numbers definitely helps," Dallaglio agreed. "There is no doubt that Graham Henry and the other New Zealand selectors are taking this aspect very seriously."

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