Dawson starts retirement countdown on the bench

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The Independent Online

Matt Dawson will start tomorrow's Powergen Cup final at Twickenham on the bench - something he probably considers to be an insult. Like most competitive souls of his stamp, the former England captain is interested in playing, not watching other players play. Sadly for him, replacement status has become the norm in recent months, not just at international level but for Wasps, too. When he announced yesterday that he would call time on his career at the end of the season, few people died of shock.

The 33-year-old scrum-half won 77 caps for his country and featured on Lions trips to all three southern hemisphere strongholds. On the first, to South Africa in 1997, he scored a try of such mind-boggling audacity that any doubts over his big-match temperament were erased at a stroke. Four years later in Canberra he secured another knife-edge victory by putting a nerveless last-ditch conversion past the ACT Brumbies. This achievement, however, was the product of a very different set of circumstances.

A few days earlier, on the morning of the first Test against the Wallabies, an English newspaper had published Dawson's musings on what he felt was the mismanagement of the tour by Graham Henry and his phalanx of coaches. The then Northampton player's supporters lauded him for telling it how it was; his critics lambasted him from one end of Queensland to the other for undermining the collective effort. Dawson quickly came to recognise his lack of judgement - the Lions turned in one of the great performances in Brisbane that evening, making him look seriously daft - and his subsequent apology was heartfelt. Given this self-inflicted bout of trauma, his effort against the Brumbies was remarkable indeed.

A gifted all-round sportsman, Dawson engaged in a career-long scrap for scrum-half supremacy with Kyran Bracken. As much through physical resilience as anything else, he won. At the very peak of his powers - against New Zealand at Twickenham in 1993 and against the Springboks in Bloemfontein in 2000 - Bracken was marginally the more potent player, but Dawson had a greater knack of striking while the iron was hot. Completely confident of his ability to prosper on the major occasion, he performed best on the grandest stages.

Like most scrum-halves worth their salt, he mastered the art of annoying the hell out of those who played against him. Unfortunately, these habits mutated into vices. He was not the only half-back to indulge in what might euphemistically be described as gamesmanship - the football-style appealing to referees, the brazen attempts to manufacture penalty opportunities for his side - and was probably not the first, either. But he came to symbolise a style of rugby many observers considered to be beyond the pale.

Asked after a Northampton-London Irish match at Franklin's Gardens whether the referee should have marched Dawson back 10 metres every time he opened his mouth, the former Springbok centre Brendan Venter caustically replied: "If he'd done that, we'd have finished the game in Leicester."

For all that, Dawson was as brave and committed as any England player of recent memory. In 1998, he led a team of no-hopers to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and played quite brilliantly, emerging with his reputation thoroughly enhanced. For that contribution alone, he deserved the glittering prizes - the Grand Slam glory, the World Cup winner's medal - bestowed upon him five years later.

Three moments of magic

* THE TRY The series-turning effort for the 1997 Lions in Cape Town. Dawson skipped past Ruben Kruger, sold Gary Teichmann one of the more outrageous dummies in history and cantered in at the corner unopposed.

* THE COOL HEAD When England launched their last set move of the 2003 World Cup final Dawson, showing his mastery of the moment, gave Jonny Wilkinson extra space by taking on the Australian fringe defence before throwing a millimetre-perfect pass to set up the winning score.

* THE LEADERSHIP The "tour from hell" in 1998 was an abject failure, but Dawson's captaincy in adversity was something to behold in New Zealand, where he took the fight to the All Blacks and earned undying respect.