James Lawton: Dallaglio completes the road to redemption

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sportsmen who generally were of a rather rum nature frequently inhabited the pages of Ernest Hemingway, though much less so those of Graham Greene. It is thus another distinction of Lawrence Dallaglio that in both places he would have looked quite comfortably at home. The new England captain has, after all, done both: growing strong at the broken place (Papa's favourite theme) and the battle for redemption against the force of original sin (Greene's).

In Dallagio's case, of course, the sin was not so original. It was less damnable than stupid. One night he behaved unwisely in the company of a lady who was strange to him and then faced the possibility that he had ruined his life. Now we can see what he made of that ruin and it would be a dour soul who didn't exult.

Dallagio's rebuilding, on and off the field, has been simply awesome. In the greatest moments in the history of English rugby, young Jonny Wilkinson kicked the goals and Martin Johnson led the team with ferocious ambition. But Dallaglio supplied soaring performance and much wit and style. He was, in every sense, a man of his word. Once it had ambushed him. Now, as he had been for some years, he was in charge.

Sir Clive Woodward was said to have had up to half-a-dozen replacement options when Johnson decided to walk away from the captaincy before the end of his rugby twilight, but he was plainly wise to return Dallaglio to the job he had once so carelessly tossed away. Not to have done so would have been to waste the full advantage of a brilliantly moulded competitive character. It would also have been cruel.

Dallaglio had plenty of reasons to regret the foolishness which overcame him when caught in the honey-trap set by a Sunday newspaper but with one exception. Without the initially devastating consequence of a shaming loss of the captaincy prize for which he had fought so hard, he might not have thought quite so deeply about who he was and where he was going.

Where he was happened to be tough terrain indeed. It was the perilous ground you can hit when disabused of the idea that you have indeed conquered the world. Captain of England, an exuberant, extravagant figure in a game that was plainly moving towards much greater material rewards for its outstanding performers, the boy who had known monkish authority at his leading Catholic public school had reason to feel that all his hopes had been liberated. He then found himself stripped of his position and his pride. Before he could run again, he had to crawl.

He could easily have been oppressed to the point of buckling by the extent of his own folly. But instead something precisely the opposite occurred. He found redoubled strength in the pursuit of that redemption which was his version of the painful journey of Greene's Mexican whisky priest. It was, of course, complicated by the serious knee injuries which so compromised the most striking quality of the young Dallaglio, a superb athleticism producing both arresting power and fine mobility.

The injuries meant that challenge had been heightened by sharp degrees; in so many ways, Lawrence Dallaglio had to remake himself, as a man and a great rugby player. That he did it so well, albeit with a critical blip as the World Cup in Australia came into sight, is now confirmed by Woodward's latest decision. The one he made in the autumn of 2002, when the coach was completing his blueprint for the moment of glory that would come at the Telstra Stadium in Sydney last November, was perhaps the last test of Dallaglio's ability to come all the way back to the peak he had once surrendered. Woodward dropped Dallaglio on the eve of his 50th cap, and it hurt all the way to his bones.

"I didn't like it one little bit," Dallaglio recalled. "But what do you do? You realise that you have two choices. You can let your feelings run. Or you can accept that the solution lies in your hands. What I did recognise was that the coach has to make the decisions, and that if he believes someone isn't playing as well as he thinks he should be, he is obliged to act. You cannot pick players on reputation. If the players suspected that was happening, the coach would lose the team. When it came down to it, I couldn't separate my own position from what I knew a coach had to do." It was a decisive response to a situation which if handled badly could have opened up the way, once again, to oblivion.

Instead, Dallaglio was moving, along with his England team-mates, to the apex of his sporting life. He was rampant in the spring, scoring early at Lansdowne Road and triggering the avalanche that overwhelmed an Irish team which had dared to believe that it had the skill and the strength to stop the English juggernaut. Of all the images thrown up by that tumultuous performance, none lingers more powerfully than the expression on Dallaglio's face as the national anthem was played. What you fancied you saw was the intensity of a man who had come through some times of doubt and moved on to an unshakeable conviction. It was that now the path was clear. It had only be walked.

And so it was in Australia, when Dallaglio, an ever-present, supplied some of the more subtle contributions to the spirit of a team moved by the thunder of Johnson's relentless belief that the World Cup would be won. In moments of extreme tension, Dallaglio offered a philosophical shrug. The job had to be done. The nerve had to hold.

Dallaglio paid generous tribute at the retirement of the man who had had laid such powerful, if sometimes seriously erring hands, on the leadership of England, but of course he is some way from the mould of the captain he preceded and now succeeds. One striking difference is Dallaglio's acceptance that the game has a duty to curb tendencies of extreme violence on the field. When English rugby closed ranks so fiercely around Johnson at a time when some thought he should have been dropped for a game in Paris after a show of gratuitous violence in a club match, Dallaglio spoke quietly, but with some firmness, about the need to draw a line. He talked about wider responsibilities - and the uncertainty that if the worst of the mayhem wasn't checked, serious injury was inevitable.

Making such a speech is not to guarantee your popularity inside the game, but it carried the tone of a man happy to say what he thought. He didn't become a captain again by saying the right things and and it is to the coach's credit that he elected to go with the man who had travelled the furthest and knew the most.

It was a tough but perfectly routed journey and, some noted in the thrill of his beautiful creation of England's try in the World Cup final, it had taken him clear to the end of his road to redemption. Like Greene's priest, he was touched by the Power and the Glory.

Comments