Dallaglio's old values shape new Wasps era

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lawrence Dallaglio was in his late teens - "I was still at school, just short of my 18th birthday" - when he opened the local paper, sought out the latest Courage League One table, saw the word "Wasps" at the head of it and decided, in a blinding flash of youthful certainty, that he had found his passport to fame and fortune. It was a moment awash with serendipity; Bath, masters of all they surveyed and invariably top of the pile, would have caught his eye on virtually any other day. Conveniently for Dallaglio, only a few miles of the North Circular separated his chosen club from the family home in Shepherd's Bush. The West Country was an entire solar system away.

Lawrence Dallaglio was in his late teens - "I was still at school, just short of my 18th birthday" - when he opened the local paper, sought out the latest Courage League One table, saw the word "Wasps" at the head of it and decided, in a blinding flash of youthful certainty, that he had found his passport to fame and fortune. It was a moment awash with serendipity; Bath, masters of all they surveyed and invariably top of the pile, would have caught his eye on virtually any other day. Conveniently for Dallaglio, only a few miles of the North Circular separated his chosen club from the family home in Shepherd's Bush. The West Country was an entire solar system away.

Fourteen years on, he remains a Wasp. Despite the fact that he will soon be earning less than he is now - when he returned to bread-and-butter business last December as a newly anointed world champion, the management expressed their adoration by patting him on the back and asking him to accept a cut in pay from the end of June - he has committed himself to another two seasons at the Causeway Stadium in High Wycombe, or Loftus Road in West London, or wherever the reigning Premiership champions choose to play their rugby from here on in. The England captain could sign for anyone, anywhere, and name his price, yet chooses to stay put. How come?

Loyalty is a big part of it - old-style, out-of-fashion loyalty. "It was never an issue during the amateur era, the loyalty thing, but professionalism has changed everything," he said this week. "I appreciate there are new forces at work nowadays; two or three years ago, I might have moved on myself. But as well as asking whether your particular club has taken you as far as it can, it is also important to turn the question around and ask whether you have given everything of yourself to the cause.

"The success we've achieved here is against the odds, I promise you. This is not a club based securely in its community, like Bath or Leicester or Northampton. This is a London club, and it is incredibly difficult to create any sort of lasting togetherness in a place like London, a city of distractions where you become anonymous the moment you walk out the front door. What is more, we cannot compete financially with many of our rivals because there is no London weighting built into the salary cap - a serious problem, believe me.

"Yet Wasps have come good in recent seasons; the people here are playing the best rugby of their lives, so we must be doing something right. And that something is a mixture of many ingredients, from the way we train and the rugby we play to the way we interact as a group. I think something radical is going on here, that we are bringing something new to the club game in England. The players, myself included, are excited about being a part of it. And that is what it's about, in the end. What else is there?"

Tomorrow at Twickenham, a home from home if ever there was one, Dallaglio will lead Wasps against Toulouse, the defending champions, in the final of the Heineken Cup - the premier competition in European club rugby and a title the Londoners never went close to winning in five previous attempts. Could Dallaglio put the occasion in context? "I've spent a sporting lifetime getting to this point," he replied. "How much context would you like?"

Toulouse were one of the clubs who interested him, albeit vaguely, when he was down in the dumps and mulling over his future following the 2001 Lions tour of Australia, from which he was invalided home with a severely messed-up knee and a wounded soul. The prospect of playing the Frenchmen for a prize of this grandeur, on an occasion of this magnitude, both fascinates and inspires him. On his own admission, he knows comparatively little about French rugby; he knows enough, however, to understand the scale of the challenge this weekend.

"People close to the French game say Toulouse are the most professional club in the country by a distance, and I have no reason to doubt their word," he said. "It is impossible not to be impressed by the quality of their organisation, the size of their support base, their financial clout. They are at the very top end of the French game, not sometimes but always. Bath and Leicester had their periods of domination in this country, and I'd like to think we are on the brink of something similar here at Wasps, but no English side has a record that stacks up against Toulouse in terms of consistency.

"Financially, they operate on a different level to us. I don't know the precise details of their wage bill, but I'm prepared to suggest it is massive by the standards of English rugby. They can trade in the best, most expensive players in the world. But to my mind, there is something else about the club, something special. It is an integral aspect of Toulouse life, an essential part of the community, the biggest thing in town. They have a tradition, and a sense of continuity that grows from that tradition. Guy Noves, their coach, was in charge back in 1996 when we beat them 77-17 in a Heineken Cup pool match. They had qualified for the knock-out phase, we were already out; there was nothing on the game and we played nothing-to-lose rugby that just happened to work out on the day. But even so... 77 points. How many coaches here would have survived that sort of humiliation?"

There have been times this season when Wasps looked capable of scoring 77 points before half-time. They have developed a style of rugby fundamentally different to any played by their principal rivals for domestic honours, based around a ferociously combative defensive system known as "up and in". Other teams, physically damaged and emotionally embittered by the number of man-and-ball assaults inflicted by the Wasps tacklers, refer to it as "up and offside" or "up and cheating", but are rarely supported in their suspicions by the match officials. As Dallaglio puts it: "We play smart rugby, but it's smart rugby with heart and soul attached."

He does not stop there. "Our game is based on a huge amount of aggression and emotion. It's a high-risk, high-reward approach, leaving no room for doubt on the part of those involved. The way we play, doubt equals trouble. Our defensive system asks very difficult questions, even of the most talented players, and if we get it wrong, it goes wrong in a big way. So we have to believe, to be able to look each other in the eye in the tunnel and know, absolutely for certain, that we can cope with the extremity of what we do. Toulouse have line-breakers in their side, and wide runners who will make hay if we're not quite on our game. As I say: 'high risk, high reward'."

When Dallaglio casts his eye around the faces in the tunnel tomorrow, he expects to be reassured. He will see Josh Lewsey, pound-for-pound the strongest back in England. ("The other Premiership teams call us the 'carpet-carriers', because of our physical strength," the captain remarked, proudly). He will see Stuart Abbott, the "silent assassin", and Alex King and Rob Howley. He will see Will Green, dependability made flesh, and Simon Shaw and his old back-row muckers, Joe Worsley and Paul Volley. He will also clap eyes on the Samoan hooker Trevor Leota, a Pacific atoll on tree-trunk legs. "If there is one bloke on earth with whom you don't want to clash heads, under any circumstances whatsoever, Trevor is that man," Dallaglio said, grimacing at the very thought of so seismic a tête-à-tête.

"These people represent the core value of this team, which is honesty," he continued. "We don't spend enough time together not to be honest with each other. Our coaches, Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards, run training in what I call a player-responsive way - basically, it's little and often, based on the vital balance between quality time spent at the club and quality time spent away from it.

"Warren was an All Black; Shaun was playing rugby league for big money when I was a baby. They know their stuff backwards, and they've developed a programme that works for us. As long as we, the players, continue to buy into it, I see no reason why it shouldn't keep working."

None of the outstanding Wasps of the modern era bought into the club with greater generosity of spirit than Dallaglio - not Rendall or Probyn, not Andrew or Ryan, not Melville or Rigby or Uttley. It would be stretching a point to claim that this is club constructed in the image of a single individual. But it would not be stretching it by much.

Comments