England's flamboyant tub-thumper who was always first out of trenches

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The Independent Online

There are those who accuse Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio of living up to his mixed ancestry, in so far as he played rugby like an Englishman and captained like an Italian.

There are those who accuse Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio of living up to his mixed ancestry, in so far as he played rugby like an Englishman and captained like an Italian. Certainly, he wore his crimson, beating heart on the sleeve of his red-rose jersey. Dallaglio played scores of Test matches alongside his long-time rival for the national captaincy, the great Leicester lock Martin Johnson, and the stylistic differences between the two men could hardly have been more marked.

Dallaglio was a tub-thumper, first out of the trenches and to hell with the consequences. Johnson was far quieter, more of a mood merchant - a man happiest when allowed to go about his work with a minimum of fuss and bother. Both were willing to argue the toss with match officials, and were adept at swinging the odd crucial decision their way, but they remained opposite sides of the English coin. Johnson, the more authoritative, led his country to every prize under the sun. If Dallaglio, the more flamboyant, also experienced Grand Slam and World Cup glory, it was from the role of first lieutenant.

Those who considered him a flawed captain always pointed to the last match of the old Five Nations' Championship, when England played Wales at Wembley in April 1999. Dallaglio and company were molten-hot favourites to secure their first Grand Slam of the professional era, and seemed to justify that favouritism in scoring three unanswered tries before the interval. But their self-flagellatory indiscipline allowed Neil Jenkins to keep the Welsh in touch with a series of penalties, and when Dallaglio denied the young Jonny Wilkinson what would have been a winning kick and gambled instead on an attacking line-out, he paid for his braggadocio when Wales marched to the other end of the field and pinched the spoils in stoppage time.

Yet Dallaglio, appointed captain by Clive Woodward in 1997 after playing a strikingly mature role with the Lions in South Africa that summer, had already proved himself a leader several times over. It was he who inspired a young, experimental England side to a 26-all draw with Justin Marshall's outstanding All Black team in only his fourth game as captain; it was he who presided over the 129-point demolition of the Celtic countries during the 1998 Five Nations; and it was he who finally broke Woodward's duck against the southern hemisphere countries by guiding England past Gary Teichmann's Springboks in December of the same year.

First capped by Jack Rowell against South Africa in 1995 - Dallaglio had toured the republic in 1994, a year after featuring in England's World Cup-winning seven-a-side team - he led England in 14 of Woodward's first 20 games as head coach. A few days after the Wembley defeat, he found himself on the wrong end of a thoroughly nasty sex-and-drugs story in the News of the World and, temporarily, out of the England team. He returned, profoundly chastened, in time for the 1999 World Cup, but Johnson had assumed the captaincy. Dallaglio would not lead his country again for almost five years.

When Johnson, bathing in the afterglow of last November's World Cup victory, decided to call it quits at Test level, there was some debate as to whether Woodward would restore his initial choice to the captaincy. During Johnson's periodic injuries and suspensions, the likes of Matthew Dawson and Neil Back had been awarded the honour. And besides, Dallaglio had been dropped from the starting line-up as recently as the autumn of 2002 - a decision that both flabbergasted and offended him, given the fact that England had just beaten the All Blacks at Twickenham.

But his more recent form had been exceptional, both with England and with his beloved Wasps, and Woodward felt he alone could guide a Test team in transition through a challenging series of post-World Cup fixtures. The record books will be unkind to Dallaglio, who lost Six Nations' matches against Ireland and France and all three summer Tests in the Antipodes. In reality, though, he was second only to Johnson as a national captain - and that, as the whole of rugby knows, is no disgrace.