Dallaglio's epic journey back from the point of no return

Injury so dented the confidence of the former England captain that he nearly quit the game. Chris Hewett hears a tale of personal redemption
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The Independent Online

If we are all heroes of our own life stories, the tale told by Lawrence Dallaglio over the past 15 years has been something of an epic - a rich mixture of glory and tragicomedy, of breathtaking ascents and spectacular downfalls, of courage and commitment and recklessness.

The man's reputation continues to go before him, as a member of the London Irish backroom staff discovered before his club's recent cup match with Wasps. "I saw Lawrence in the tunnel before the game," he said. "It was all there: the stare, the set of the jaw - God, I swear I could smell the determination on his breath. I knew then that we wouldn't win. And we didn't."

That fixture, played 13 days ago, marked Dallaglio's latest return from a lengthy period of incapacitation - this one forced upon him by the surgical removal of a substantial metal plate from the right ankle he splintered and shattered at the beginning of the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005. A few minutes into the contest, the former England captain was driven over for a try. His celebration was unusually prolonged - "It wasn't a premeditated thing; it just meant so much," he explained - and it was accompanied by a warm wave of acclamation from Wasps supporters delighted to see the Lawrence of old back in the saddle and riding roughshod over the poor sods on the other side of the halfway line.

Except this was not the Lawrence of old. Superficially, he seemed indistinguishable from the Dallaglio of popular legend - the player who scaled the heights with a brand of self-confidence so complete that no setback seemed to weaken him; a sportsman who famously met every negative with a double-positive. In reality, he had spent the previous weeks and months at war with himself. Indeed, he very nearly walked away from rugby altogether.

"I had a very serious discussion with myself about whether or not I should retire," he admitted this week, relaxing in the gym at his club's headquarters in west London after a couple of hours of internecine slaughter on the training field.

"The issue for me was the fear that my performances would be so poor - poor by the standards I've always set myself - that I'd lose some of my self-respect. It's one thing to work your way back to fitness, but quite another to recover your match fitness. It's a long road, especially when you've been there before, and I wasn't sure I wanted to make the journey. If you're asking me whether I considered packing it in, the answer is: Yes, I did."

But why? Here is a man who reacted to his grotesque injury in Rotorua 16 months ago by renouncing his own premature retirement from international rugby and redeclaring himself available for England. And once his ankle had been reconstructed and bolted into place, Dallaglio set about his task with a rare passion, missing only a handful of games for Wasps before landing himself a place in the national squad for the Six Nations Championship, making appearances off the bench in four of the five matches. Not everyone had been convinced by his form, but nobody doubted his spirit. Except, it seems, Dallaglio himself.

"Last season, I played with a lot of doubt," he said. "I may not have shared it with people, but it was there. For the first time since I started in rugby, I felt demotivated. I was getting by on the bare minimum, and I knew it.

"What was worse, I just didn't feel like putting in the extra work that might have snapped me out of it. At the time, I really couldn't see how it would have made a difference. I think my expectations of what I could do at that point were misjudged, and as I've said before, it's difficult to handle being outplayed by someone you know, in your heart of hearts, should not be doing anything of the kind. So it boiled down to a simple choice: either retire, or do something about it."

Dallaglio views the 2005-06 campaign as something best forgotten. "My personal life wasn't good, and to some extent, I was playing rugby as a means of focusing away from that," he said.

Then there was the England business - the endless debate surrounding his place in the squad, his rivalry with the captain, Martin Corry, the veiled accusations that he had talked himself into the élite party rather than played himself into it. "I was very disappointed by that whole media circus, because contrary to popular opinion, I didn't engineer any of it," he insisted. "I'd never set out to rock the boat, to unbalance things. It's the last thing I'd do. Perhaps I'm more forthcoming than some other players when it comes to public comment, but that doesn't mean I have ulterior motives. If I'm asked a question, I try to answer it honestly. That's as far as it goes."

He is a much happier man now. He married his long-time partner Alice in the summer - "It was long overdue; we had a fabulous wedding in Italy and we're much the better for the experience" - and is more than content to bide his time on the England front. "If the selectors want to give the young blokes a go, the James Forresters and so on, then good on them," he said. "My philosophy now is to enjoy each game I play for what it is, and let the rest take care of itself.

"I've learnt that a player can cause himself real problems if he looks too far ahead and I don't intend to make an enemy of myself by getting carried away with what may or may not happen in the future. I'm not absolutely sure what goals I should be setting myself at the moment, which is unusual for me, so the best thing to do is take things step by step.

"Besides, I have enough to think about in terms of making the Wasps team, let alone England. We have real strength in the forwards now - two first-team packs, rather than a first string and a second string. If you'd watched the training session we've just had, you'd recognise the truth of what I'm saying.

"In the back row alone, we have Joe Worsley and Dan Leo, Tom Rees and Jonny O'Connor, John Hart and James Haskell and myself. If Andy Farrell took one look over here, he might well come to the conclusion that it's time for a change of position."

Tomorrow lunchtime, Dallaglio leads his team in their opening Heineken Cup pool fixture, a meeting with the Frenchmen of Castres at High Wycombe. Six days later, the Londoners travel to Perpignan, unsafe and insecure in the knowledge that this is among the most perilous trips in European rugby.

"We went there three seasons back, and I remember it vividly as being somewhat on the lively side," the captain said with a knowing smirk. "There were 16 citings afterwards and six or seven of them stuck, which gives you some idea of the nature of the game. But we won, and the Catalan crowd clapped us off the field at the end. It was a fabulous day out. Fantastic."

A second Heineken Cup title this year would set a crown on Dallaglio's career, irrespective of whether he makes it to a third World Cup. His England prospects are up in the air, not least because he is only two games into his comeback and still unsure of how his 34-year-old body will stand up to the rigours of prolonged activity in the Premiership and European arenas.

He is not in the least reticent about talking up Wasps' chances of success, however. With Phil Vickery, his Webb Ellis Trophy-winning mucker, freshly installed on the tight-head side of the scrum - the two men trained together through the early weeks of the season, egging each other on in their quest to overcome career-threatening injury - and Tom Palmer finding his feet in the middle of the line-out, Dallaglio expects to land a trophy. Or maybe two.

And needless to say, he is still up to his old tricks. Against Newcastle last weekend, he took the field with a heavy bandage around his fragile right hand - something of a giveaway to Tony Spreadbury, the referee. "He pinged me for handling the ball on the floor, which I don't think I was, and said: "Penalty against the man with the bandaged hand," Dallaglio recalled, still a little put out. "I thought to myself, 'I've had enough of this', and took the bloody thing off. Tony spotted me doing it, of course, and was pretty suspicious for the rest of the match. But you know what? I didn't get caught again all day."