The red rose march towards the distant sporting Mecca of the Six Nations Grand Slam is nearing its conclusion, so it seems entirely appropriate that most of the white-shirtedpilgrims are spending these last few days in the oval-ball equivalent of purdah. England's championship Ã©lite were thin on the ground in Edinburgh yesterday: the wags, Austin Healey and Phil Vickery, were conspicuous by their silence, while the babes-in-arms, Mike Tindall and Ben Cohen, and the sensitive flowers, Mike Catt and Simon Shaw, were confined to their rooms, out of harm's way.
Only the gnarled veterans - the Leonards, the Backs, the Hills - were trusted to air their views on this Sunday's climactic Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield; they and young Jonny Wilkinson, who is a veritable child prodigy when it comes to side-stepping the most intense questioning and saying double damn-all squared about nothing in particular. These are nervous, not to say neurotic hours in the visiting camp and Clive Woodward, understandably petrified that someone might commit some verbal faux pas that would help motivate the Scottish foe, went out of his way to minimise the risk of error.
Lawrence Dallaglio did put in an appearance, though, and there was nothing evasive or equivocal about his assessment of the task ahead. "I know this much," he pronounced. "Scotland will play exceptionally well on Sunday. They are at Murrayfield, in front of their own supporters, and they're up against us, the English. What other inspiration do they need? And anyway, a side with Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer in the camp understands how to win a game of rugby against the odds. Those of us who had the privilege and pleasure of being coached by those two on the Lions tour in '97 are only too aware of their expertise in preparing sides for one-off matches. If anyone in our squad is not expecting a very serious examination, they're in the wrong place."
Dallaglio rarely gets entangled in the paranoia of top-level union; he is a loose forward, but not a loose talker. Like Hill and Back, his fellow back-rowers, he is the consummate rugby professional, a work ethic in human form who considers rugby to be a science, and very nearly a precise one. "If you concentrate purely on the things you can control - and by that I mean the quality of your performance - you'll win far more than you lose," he insists, not unreasonably.
Which is why his own record of achievement - or, rather, under-achievement - in an England shirt exasperates and infuriates him. Dallaglio has won many of the sport's glittering prizes, both as a Wasp - one Premiership title, one Tetley's Bitter Cup triumph - and a Lion. As a rookie rugger-bugger fresh out of finishing school, he helped his country to the inaugural World Cup Sevens title in Edinburgh seven years ago, so he knows what it is to do the business at Murrayfield. But in 15-man terms, his record in the national shirt amounts to nothing more than a nasty black mark on his CV. And it is eating away at his soul.
"We lack consistency," he said yesterday. "We're unbeaten in this Six Nations' Championship, but we've performed only in patches. There were times against Wales and Italy when we didn't cut it, and while we stood up to be counted against the French when the pressure was on in the last 10 minutes, we might easily have finished on the wrong end of that scoreline. I'd sum it up this way: since I've been a part of this side, we've promised much but delivered little." There was a pause, followed by a stinging afterthought. "Actually, 'little' is the wrong word. We've delivered nothing, to be honest. Absolutely nothing."
Had Will Carling's complacent, over-confident side taken the same faintly uncharitable but undeniably accurate view of themselves when they played for the full house - Calcutta Cup, Five Nations title, Triple Crown and Grand Slam - in the Scottish capital a decade ago, they might have spared themselves the agony of that most infamous of Murrayfield misfires. Did Dallaglio witness the 1990 match? "I was 17 at the time, so I imagine I'd have been playing for the Under-18s somewhere," he replied, unhelpfully.
All right then, does the memory of last year's Grand Slam failure against Wales at Wembley still make the occasional appearance in his mind's eye? After all, his tactical acumen was called into question in the aftermath of that defeat; he was accused of all manner of mortal sins, from bluster and braggadocio to swank and swagger. "I like to look forward rather than back," he replied. "Too many things have gone on in my life for me to spend too much of my time thinking about the past." It was a revealing comment, a reminder that for all his apparent indestructibility on the field, Dallaglio bleeds like the rest of us.
"What I want as a player is the same thing I want for England as a team: I want the respect of my peers," he continued. "Someone like Jason Leonard has that respect, and he has been able to retain it because he recognises an important truth about this game: that earning it is only part of the deal, that you have to re-earn it every time you take the field. It all comes back to consistency of performance, which is the quality that allows a club to win the league and allows a national side to win the Six Nations. Last season, we weren't consistent enough because the championship went down to the final kick at the final match and we didn't last that long. Scotland did, and they deserved the title."
Unlike 1999, or indeed 1990, Scotland are in no position to pinch the silverware this weekend. They are playing for pride alone. Pride is one hell of a motivating force, though, and Dallaglio is fully cognisant of the fact. "Had we lost in Paris, what would we be discussing right now? A mediocre England campaign, that's what. These are thin lines we're talking about here; that England haven't won a Grand Slam since 1995 tells you how difficult they are to achieve. How will I feel if we win on Sunday? Right now, I don't want to talk about 'ifs'. Let's get the job done first, eh?"Reuse content