Lawrence Dallaglio ambles out of the room, checking the messages on his mobile phone. A couple of minutes later he returns. "About all that England stuff..." he says and then pauses. This zealous communicator, a happy chewer of the fat, for once does not have the words immediately to hand. "I'm a patriot," he states after a moment, and shrugs. "All I want is to see England doing well."
England are not doing well and that exercises Dallaglio, one of the sturdy few who once helped them rule the world. Exercises him to the point that he now allows himself to contemplate that the legacy created on a stellar night beneath the Southern Cross six years ago, when he packed down behind Martin Johnson, has been wasted. Spent frivolously through hasty decisions, muddled selections and, above all, a telling lack of direction. He is a patriot with a problem.
"No stability, no continuity," says Dallaglio. "We've had Andy Robinson, Brian Ashton, now Martin Johnson. England have not had a coherent strategy since winning the World Cup. 'Let's make Andy Robinson our coach... oh no we got that wrong. Let's make Brian Ashton our coach... oh no we got that wrong. Let's make Martin Johnson our coach.'"
Dallaglio retired last year after a much decorated 17-year career – he won every major honour available for club and country – but he has no wish to be fast-tracked into the Fred Trueman role as the red rose's arch critic (besides, Brian Moore is currently auditioning for the part), hence the return to the room and his simple proclamation.
Dallaglio is one of life's enthusiasts. When he first arrives he makes straight for the large windows of the conference room on the 16th floor of his publisher's office. They offer panoramic views across central London. "Can you see the Olympics yet?" wonders Dallaglio peering eastwards. But it is to the west that Dallaglio's heart lies, to Shepherd's Bush where he was born, to Stamford Bridge where he follows his other great game, to Sudbury where he began with Wasps, the only club he played for, and to Twickenham where he won many of his 85 England caps, one of his two Heineken Cups and brought the curtain down on his career with a Wasps victory in the Guinness Premiership final in front of 81,600.
So what about the England of now, the side limping into an autumn international series that opens against Australia tomorrow?
"One man's disappointment is another man's opportunity... or another boy's opportunity in this case," says Dallaglio and grins devilishly. "It is a great opportunity for England, benchmarking ourselves against two of the best three sides in the world – wonderful."
Then comes the but: "With England it is still unclear what we are trying to do. Are we trying to win the World Cup in 2011? If we are trying to be the best team in the world and we lose to Australia it's not the end of the world, you can gauge where we are going. Players need to understand what it is going to take to become the best team in the world. We need to create a route map, and it needs to be incremental. Take the team Martin was captain of – it took six years really.
"From 1997, when we played Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, New Zealand in consecutive weekends – drew two, lost two – to the World Cup final in 2003, which was our 14th consecutive victory against a southern hemisphere side, home or away – that takes time.
"You need to manage expectations. Say to players this is what it takes to be the best team in the world. If you want to be known as a good international player, carry on as you are. If you want to be known as a great international player, this what you have to do [he bangs the table in front of him]. If you want to be the best of the best this is where you want to get to [he gestures out the window in the direction of London's BT Tower]. If players understand that, then you've done your job. It's about unlocking that potential. I don't think some players truly understand what the measurement is and it's the job of the coach to spell that out. I'm not telling Martin how to do his job. I support Chelsea and I know what the expectations of that club are. If they lose every week I can manage that."
But with that comes consequences, as any Chelsea manager is all too aware.
"Yes, there are consequences to losing but you have to be prepared to take that risk. Sport is about being prepared to take those gambles. If you raise expectations, everyone else comes up with you... 'I can do that – let's beat that team – let's do it together.' Don't be afraid of it. You're only going to have the job for a finite amount of time. So make the most of it – get on with it."
For all that, Dallaglio, who made his debut in an autumn international against South Africa in 1995, is not infused with pessimism over England's future. "Given their woes," he says, "I don't think they will have as good an autumn series as they would like to. But I do feel there is light on the horizon for the Six Nations. England will hopefully have players fit and I think some other of the home nations will start to tire. England generally never have a very good championship after a Lions tour, players are fatigued. Historically they have provided most players – not this year. It's been Wales or Ireland and I am fascinated to see how they go. France will probably come out as winners, but England have a great opportunity."
Two of Dallaglio's team-mates from the World Cup triumph return for tomorrow's game against the same opponents, Steve Thompson and English rugby's totem, Jonny Wilkinson. "It's good to have Jonny back," says Dallaglio. "And it is great to see him influencing games again where it matters most – on the scoreboard. Jonny is the leading points scorer in rugby, you can build a team around that. We did. I remember playing games where we had not played well in the first half but you'd come in 12-6 ahead – because of Jonny."
The injury plague now bedevilling the England set-up as a whole once seemed to surround Wilkinson on his own, and Dallaglio believes the move to France, which seems to have revitalised the No 10, should have been made much sooner.
"I've always felt he would have been better served playing away from Newcastle. He would be better protected at a bigger club. He has said that since he's left he feels like a new Jonny Wilkinson. Steven Gerrard doesn't play for West Ham. It's not to belittle Newcastle, but if you're at a club where there is a rationale to rest you... there has to be a selfishness in sport if you want to be at the top. There is only so long you can put up without Heineken Cup rugby or Champions League football. You want to be playing at the highest level all the time."
European competition didn't exist when Dallaglio first made his way into the game and, as he is followed into retirement by his few remaining contemporaries, the last generation to span the amateur and professional eras is disappearing. Thus a part of the sport will be forever confined to the pages of his new book, Rugby Tales, an entertaining collection of yarns from players of every generation.
"When my England career started, I remember Brian Moore arriving at the team hotel carrying all these folders as he had come straight from court. Rugby fitted around everything else; now it's the other way round. The clever ones are those who get a perspective on their life – get some sort of focus outside of rugby. It's a wonderful game, but it gets boring if you think about it all the time.
"You need to keep reinventing yourself, finding new ways of expressing yourself on the field, but players should wake up every morning punching the air if they play professional rugby – it's just the most fantastic thing to do."
My Other Life
"Since my mother died [his new book is dedicated to her] I have done more cooking with my father – it has helped bring us closer together," says Dallaglio. His father, Vincenzo, has spent most of his working life in the restaurant trade and his son has inherited a passion for food. The Dallaglios even launched a range of pasta sauces earlier this year, but when at home, what does he most like to cook? "A Sunday roast or osso bucco [braised veal shanks]," he says, neatly dividing his Anglo-Italian heritage.
Lawrence Dallaglio's Rugby Tales is published by Headline, £18.99Reuse content