Dallaglio's timing could not be worse for England

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The Independent Online

The fall of the House of Woodward, a calamity in progress since the final whistle blew on England's last-minute World Cup victory in Australia last November, produced another significant pile of sporting rubble yesterday when it emerged that Lawrence Dallaglio was preparing to announce his retirement from international rugby.

The fall of the House of Woodward, a calamity in progress since the final whistle blew on England's last-minute World Cup victory in Australia last November, produced another significant pile of sporting rubble yesterday when it emerged that Lawrence Dallaglio - perhaps the most-celebrated British player of the professional era - was preparing to announce his retirement from international rugby. Dallaglio is scheduled to make an "important announcement" at Twickenham today, and well-placed sources indicated that he had decided to call time on his career at representative level.

Assuming Dallaglio's colleagues and associates have read the runes correctly, this will be a heavy blow to the solar plexus of an England team already showing signs of weakness in the Test arena. Dallaglio led his country to three catastrophic defeats in the southern hemisphere in June, including a 50-point embarrassment against a vulnerable Wallaby side in Brisbane. He was, however, one of the few players to emerge with his reputation in one piece. This is not a good time for him to depart the scene.

Clive Woodward, the national coach, has already waved reluctant goodbyes to Martin Johnson, his World Cup captain, and an entire platoon of equally hardened international hands: Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Kyran Bracken and Dorian West, all of whom led England at one time or another. Other experienced players - Will Greenwood and Mike Catt to name but two - are fast closing in on their dotage. The first European team to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy is in an advanced state of collapse.

Dallaglio turned 32 earlier this month and is not the super-quick, supremely athletic specimen who first broke into Jack Rowell's international side in 1995. A serious knee injury, suffered shortly before the 2001 Lions tour of Australia, forced him to adopt a more limited style of No 8 play. But his muscularity and the intensity of his competitive presence continued to mark him out as a special player, not least during the latter stages of last year's World Cup and the closing weeks of the club season, when he inspired his Wasps team to a European-domestic double with an apparently endless series of remarkable performances.

He was, however, bitterly disappointed by his country's lamentable surrenders on the summer tour. "How am I? Fine, apart from suicidal," he said after the shambles in Brisbane, where he won his 73rd cap. Fully committed both to his rugby at club level - Wasps are among the favourites for the major trophies once again - and to a testimonial campaign that threatens to break every record in the book, he may have taken the view that another few months with England is likely to be the least rewarding of his various activities.

Confirmation of his departure would leave Woodward in search of a new No 8 - the obvious candidates include Dallaglio's back-row colleague at Wasps, the increasingly influential Joe Worsley, and Chris Jones of Sale - and a new captain. Eight months ago, England boasted more potential leaders than the US Army, but retirements and injuries have stripped the cupboard bare.

Woodward's preferences would include the Newcastle outside-half Jonny Wilkinson, who has not played a competitive match since December, and the Gloucester prop Phil Vickery, who is suffering from back problems and is unlikely to make the cut for this autumn's international series at Twickenham.

Another effect of any firm retirement decision by Dallaglio would concern the British and Irish Lions, who tour New Zealand next summer. The Englishman has long been considered one of two ante-post favourites for the captaincy - Ireland's world-class centre, Brian O'Driscoll, is the other - and his absence would hit Woodward, the tour coach, and his fellow selectors unusually hard. Dallaglio was one of the central figures in the Lions' momentous victory over South Africa in 1997.

Ironically, his first Premiership game of the new season will be at Twickenham, the scene of dozens of triumphs at Test level and of many of his most inspirational performances. Wasps are scheduled to play Saracens, their traditional north London rivals, in front of 50,000 spectators on Saturday, and Dallaglio is expected to lead his team out as usual.

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