Emotional and fitting farewell for warrior born to win

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The Independent Online

Could he handle it? Eighty-nine thousand pairs of eyes following his every move, plus the all-seeing television cameras, desperately seeking a sign of weakness; overhyping the good and accentuating the bad. Handle it? Lawrence Dallaglio has always loved it, and he lived and breathed it here one last time in triumph. It had begun for the old warrior, Wasps-wise at least, on a scruffy second-team pitch on a windswept night 18 seasons ago. It ended in front of the biggest crowd for a club match the world has seen, who rose to acclaim him.

Almost statesmanlike, and no longer in need of his natural tendency towards the wind-up, Dallaglio collected the Premiership trophy (his fifth league title as captain) and spoke to the 89,000 spectators. "I was always wary that today should be about Wasps and rugby and the spiritof playing against mighty opponents," he said. "We haven't got the greatest resources in the world but we've got great heart. I feel this is one of our greatest achievements."

Wasps were bottom of the Premiership for half a weekend in mid-October; in 10th place out of 12 when eight of the 22 matches had been played. It takes bloody-mindedness to recover from that kind of shortfall. Their mastery of the play-offs has, again, been unstoppable. They've been cute, focused when they needed to be, wise to what was required. Remind you of anyone? That was why they kept Dallaglio as a player to within three months of his 36th birthday.

Frankly he has not been in his pomp since suffering a broken ankle on the 2005 Lions tour. Each pick-up from the base yesterday made a few metres at best; Dallaglio had to wait for the breakdown to come to him rather than the other way around, and when the Wasps fly-half Riki Flutey broke he was quickly a speck on his skipper's horizon.

And yet, four minutes before half-time, when Leicester fumbled on Wasps' 22, there was Dallaglio to flip the loose ball up to start the counter-attack which led to a try for Josh Lewsey (left) and a 23-6 lead. The move progressed and Dallaglio, his legs lacking the raw pace which caught Wasps' eye all those years ago, trotted along behind.

He got back involved for an instant then stumbled over. If his clubmates will have to run free without him now, this was a bit of practice, and Tom Rees's try and James Haskell's restart prowess were the more eye-catching back-row contributions. Still Dallaglio bristled and niggled. When Leicester scored one of their two tries he had a spot of throat-grappling with Alesana Tuilagi and bent the ear of referee Wayne Barnes in trademark fashion. But Wasps' dominance meant it was Leicester's Martin Corry who was doing the lion's share of complaining.

Corry, who is not retiring just yet, was a clubmate of Wasps' Fraser Waters, Simon Shaw and Josh Lewsey in the mid-1990s. Then, the four of them were playing for Bristol, who did not keep them together. They and many other clubs lacked the foresight and organisation of Leicester and Wasps, winners between them of 10 of the last 12 league titles, and four Heineken Cups.

Dallaglio is a coach in the making, and when Wasps' gurus Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards are occupied by the British Lions and Wales respectively next season, who better to lay down the law at a training session or two?

In the meantime he is to take up a commercial role for Wasps, and is bound to bring to it the wit, nous and determination inherited from an Irish-descended mum who was raised in the East End and a strict Italian Catholic father. Eileen and Vicenzo were here yesterday; so too Dallaglio's wife, Alice, and their three kids, who gambolled on the pitch as dad lifted the Premiership trophy. They have been the making of Dallaglio, but rugby helped save him. In the months after the death of his sister Francesca in the Marchioness disaster in August 1989, he was 17, out of love with the game and uncertain about life itself. But he had friends in a team selected from northern schools (though he had already been suspended from Ampleforth College and never went back) to face a Middlesex Schools team at Wasps' old ground in Sudbury. Rickety and unprepossessing it was, but Dallaglio had found a home.

In the very XV in which Dallaglio made his league debut in September 1993 were Steve Bates, Dean Ryan, Damian Hopley and Rob Andrew; respectively now in charge of Newcastle, Gloucester, the players' association and the England's elite rugby department. Dallaglio has been coached at Wasps by Rob Smith (now in charge of their academy), John Mitchell (now at Western Force in the Super 14), Nigel Melville (looking after the USA), Warren Gatland, Edwards and McGeechan. The place is auniversity of rugby.

And of course there was a tear in Dallaglio's eye before thekick-off. At stoical headquarters and around the world for England and the Lions he has brought something different and emotional. If they made a film of it, from the boarding school to the London "face" relishing the financial rewards and media jousting to the 2003 World Cup win and the rest, it would beTo Serve Them All My Days, crossed with "You're onlysupposed to blow the bloody doors off", with a little "I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse" thrown in.

With 67 minutes gone, Dallaglio was substituted. Wasps' lead had been trimmed to 23-16 and as he went off he urged them, "Come on". Seven points in it and this sporting theatre had the star confined to the wings. Leicester were not good enough, though, to spoil the party, as Dallaglio's Wasps had done here in 2005, when the retiring boot was on Martin Johnson's foot.

The Wasps supporters sang their favourite tribute – "Lawrence Dallaglio" to the tune of "La Donna è Mobile", a good little Italian ditty by Giuseppe Verdi. As a youngster Dallaglio warbled a bit on a backing track for Tina Turner. "We don't need another hero?" You won't get another like Dallaglio.

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