End of an era: England legend calls it a day

He won the World Cup and became a towering figure at Wasps, but after 15 years in the front-line trenches Lawrence Dallaglio has decided to step back from the fray. Chris Hewett outlines a remarkable career
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The Independent Online

A little over three years ago, during their first spell as European champions, Wasps lost at home to Leicester in a Heineken Cup match of unusually high quality. Lawrence Dallaglio had produced a vintage display big-hearted, lantern-jawed, elephant-lunged and now, neatly buffed and burnished after the wild excesses of the fray, he set about performing his captain's duties: glad-handing the sponsors, posing for family snapshots, talking torrents of good sense to the representatives of the public prints. He was the very exemplar of civilised rugby man, as courteous off the field as he had been implacable on it.

An hour or so later, in the darkness of the stadium car park, Dallaglio hurled his kitbag into the back of his Chelsea tractor and, unaware that at least one pair of eyes was upon him, buried his fist in the driver's door, which barely withstood the shock. "I bloody hate losing," he shouted. On realising he had been spotted, he raised his hand in apology. "It's pathetic, really," he admitted, "but after all this time, I still can't stand it."

It was always the way, and if defeat seemed to hurt him more than it did his colleagues, his celebrations of victory were longer and louder than everyone else's. Dallaglio lived rugby life to its extremes. When he scored a try against Wales at Twickenham, he took the whole of the Welsh pack over the line with him; when he turned his ankle in the opening match of the Lions tour of New Zealand in 2005, the job he made of it was so good that his foot ended up facing the wrong way up his leg; when he stumbled, eyes wide shut, into a grotesquely cynical tabloid sting in 1999, he had the entire front end of the News of the Screws all to himself. If Dallaglio did something, he liked to do it properly.

Happily, he has not lost the knack. Yesterday, at precisely the right moment, the 35-year-old No 8 confirmed what many who spend time watching this increasingly demanding sport had long suspected: that he would retire from international rugby forthwith, thereby sparing the England coaches the trouble of dropping him for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, and pack it in completely when the club campaign draws to a close in May. By then, he will have spent 15 seasons in the first-team trenches. Enough for anyone, that. More than enough.

"I have had the huge honour of playing with the Wasps club since 1990 and being part of a successful team," he said, "and I am privileged to have played for England since 1995 to have captained the national side and to have been involved in its success. I will miss playing rugby. I will miss the challenge of going up against some of the best players in the world. There isn't a better feeling than winning a game of rugby having struggled very hard as a group and achieved something together. Winning is what I shall miss most."

He knows better than anyone that whatever form his rugby life now takes and he intends to stay fully connected to the sport, probably through the media in the first instance but ultimately in a hands-on role with Wasps the buzz will never quite be the same. But Dallaglio has a better chance than most of approximating it, for more than any player of his generation, he remoulded the north London club in his own image.

Offered the captaincy at 23 when Rob Andrew hightailed it to Newcastle to set professionalism in motion and took a fistful of senior Wasps with him "Amazed as I was, I said what I had said to most things in life: Yes," he recalled in his recently published autobiography he brought a brash and boisterous dimension to the operation, a touch of West End wide-boy swagger, while building on the blue-collar virtues he had discovered on first pitching up at the old base in Sudbury as a teenager freshly rejected by the all-seeing selectors of the England Schools XV.

It is just about possible to think of an equally influential club figure in the modern era Stuart Barnes' contribution to Bath between 1985 and 1994 was very considerable indeed but taken in the round, Dallaglio towers above his competitors. Assuming he finds a role at Wasps that suits him, he will continue to do so for a good while yet. But what might that role be? In the coaching field, perhaps? As a team manager, or a director of rugby? Even, heaven forfend, a pin-striped chief executive?

Dallaglio, so forthcoming by nature, was just a little evasive yesterday, perhaps because he himself did not have the foggiest. "I plan to maintain a link with the club," he said. "After 17 years here, you can't just walk out the door. I hope to assist in various capacities, whether it is marketing, commercial or, at some stage, on the training ground. There are no guarantees with that last idea just because you've been an elite player, it doesn't necessarily mean you can become an elite coach but it's something I'd like to do in the future.

"Not in the immediate future, though. You have to be humble about these things, because we're talking about an entirely different career here. You have to learn the skills, and you don't learn them straight off. My intention would be to go away and learn, then come back. Anyway, I think it is in the best interests of the club, and also in my best interests, to take a step back at the end of the season."

Steps back have not exactly been his stock in trade, but he has been running out of options since failing to dislodge Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8, from the England starting line-up during last autumn's World Cup in France. This failure did not amuse him one little bit: partly because it was Easter and partly because he was a Quin (a club right up there alongside Bath and Leicester in their ability to get the Dallaglio goat), but mostly because the former captain viewed the replacements' bench in the way sailors of old viewed the plank that is to say, with fear and loathing.

As recently as 18 months ago, he would have said to himself: "I'll have you, Easter, if it's the last thing I do." But when a rugby player is in his 36th year, that kind of sentiment tends to be honoured more in the breach than the observance.

Having made his decision and there will be no reappraisal this time, unlike in 2005, a year after prematurely handing in his cards with England he can concentrate on winning an 11th major trophy with Wasps. Both the Premiership and the Heineken Cup are big asks, given the Londoners' poor start in the former and the canine nature of their group in the latter, but the EDF Energy Cup is a distinct possibility. Any laying of hands on silverware between now and the end of May will do nicely.

No individual would deserve it more, for none in this current era has captured the essence of rugby more than Dallaglio. Asked yesterday to identify a single treasured memory from his years at the top level of the sport, he put to one side the World Cup and Grand Slam triumphs of 2003, together with the European and Premiership titles secured with Wasps. His choice? The 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, when he was nothing but a soldier of the line, albeit it a wonderfully effective one. Why? Because he had a bloody good time. There is no better reason, and never has been.

Wasps, Lions and red roses: The Dallaglio dossier

1972 Born 10 August, Shepherd's Bush, London.

1990 Joins Wasps.

1994 Tours South Africa with England.

1995 Oct: Takes over Wasps captaincy from Rob Andrew. November: England Test debut, as replacement against South Africa at Twickenham.

1997 Captains Wasps to league title. Key player in Lions' tour success in South Africa. Oct: Named England captain.

1999 Plays in Wasps' Tetley's Bitter Cup final win. May: Resigns as England captain after newspaper allegations of drug-taking, which he denied.

2000 Leads Wasps to second Tetley's Bitter Cup win.

2001 Has to leave Lions tour of Australia with knee injury.

2002 Makes England comeback off bench in final Six Nations' game, against Italy.

2003 May: Wasps win the Premiership and Challenge Cup. Oct/Nov: The only ever-present in England's World Cup-winning campaign in Australia.

2004 May: Captains Wasps to Heineken Cup win and Premiership title. August: Announces international retirement.

2005 May: Wasps win third successive Premiership title.

2006 Feb: First appearance for England in more than 18 months, in Six Nations win over Wales.

2007 May: Leads Wasps to Heineken Cup win. Oct: Wins 85th cap in World Cup final defeat against South Africa in Paris.

2008 Jan: Announces Test retirement with immediate effect and end of club career at end of season.