Lawrence Dallaglio: 'It's not about age, it's about desire. I really am up for this'

History and mythology may be against the Lions, but this is just the sort of challenge their talismanic No 8 craves. Tim Glover talks to him
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The Independent Online

If the Lions are to stand an earthly of winning the Test series against the All Blacks, Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio will have to lead the forward assault. In the absence of Martin Johnson, Dallaglio's time has come. Once again. He can hardly wait.

If the Lions are to stand an earthly of winning the Test series against the All Blacks, Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio will have to lead the forward assault. In the absence of Martin Johnson, Dallaglio's time has come. Once again. He can hardly wait.

"I'll back myself against anyone anywhere,'' he said. You could say he is ready for the challenge of a lifetime because this series, for a number of key people, represents unfinished business.

Graham Henry, a controversial choice over Clive Woodward to coach the Lions in Australia four years ago, thought so much of Dallaglio he took a big gamble on him and it backfired. Dallaglio went to Australia with a dodgy knee, played two games and broke down with a torn cruciate ligament.

"I'd had a good run up to that point and to leave the tour was not just disappointing at the time, but it was a serious injury that could have had long-term consequences for my career. Fortunately I got it sorted out, but it required a total knee reconstruction. The whole thing hit me for six. I poured a hell of a lot of hope and optimism into trying to make it through the tour. It took me a long time to recover my confidence.'' He was invalided out with the Wales hooker Robin McBryde. "We made the best of a bad trip. It was Robin's birthday and we bonded.''

At various intervals Dallaglio's career has needed reconstruction. At the beginning of the season he decided, like Johnson, that he'd had enough of Test match rugby, at least with England. "I'd won 73 caps and with Wasps also being successful I found the whole thing relentless. I thought it was the right time to retire.''

Unlike Johnson, who played for Leicester but announced he wasn't available for either England or the Lions, Dallaglio told Woodward that he'd be interested in touring New Zealand. "The Lions equation did not come into stepping down from England. It wasn't like I was taking a calculated gamble. You have limited opportunities to play on the big stage and fortunately my club are used to it.''

While Andy Robinson, Woodward's successor at Twickenham, inherited a side without the twin pillars of Johnson and Dallaglio, the Wasps' captain, a one-club man, remained in the limelight. At his best there is no better No 8 in the world and the signs are that he has hit peak form.

Wasps were involved in some epic battles with Johnson's Leicester during the course of the season, losing out in the Heineken Cup, which they won last year, but in the Zurich Premiership final at Twickenham a couple of weeks ago the Tigers were taught a lesson. It completed a hat-trick of championships for Wasps for whom Dallaglio was immense. The fact that it ruined Johnno's day did nothing to distil Dallaglio's joy. According to Josh Lewsey, a Wasp and fellow World Cup MBE, Dallaglio's team talks are so emotional they can end in tears.

Born in London's Shepherd's Bush in 1972, the timing of Dallaglio's career in rugby was nigh on perfect. Educated at Ampleforth College and Kingston University, he made a name for himself as a member of the 1993 World Cup-winning England Sevens side before making his senior debut two years later as a replacement against South Africa. That was when the game went professional, which meant Dallaglio was in his element.

As a player he has it all and it was no surprise when he was Woodward's choice to captain England. He looked set to lead his country for as long as he could stand but then his world seemed to fall apart. The Italian stallion was fined and stripped of the England captaincy in 1999 after being caught in a so-called tabloid honey trap. It was excruciating but he survived, thanks in part to a bit of TLC from Woodward, who put him up at his home when Dallaglio was being hounded from pillar to post.

His rehabilitation appeared to be complete but after being restored to the captaincy, England threw away a Grand Slam chance against Wales at Wembley. In the aftermath Dallaglio's leadership came under intense scrutiny.

The competition in the Red Rose back row was fierce and in the autumn of 2002 Dallaglio played in a narrow victory over New Zealand at Twickenham and then found himself dropped. "I came off the pitch having beaten the All Blacks and then to be relegated was a bit of a shock. I didn't like it but we all have our setbacks. Even Johnno's been on the bench. It hurts but you have to bide your time. If any player relishes being among the replacements rather than in the starting line-up there is something seriously wrong.''

Last Monday night, when the Lions launched their tour with a performance against Argentina that silenced a 60,000-strong choir at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Dallaglio was on the bench and towards the end began to warm up. With the Pumas fired up it looked like a short straw.

"I was itching to get on,'' Dallaglio said. "People have got this wrong. The match against Argentina was tailor-made for us. We won't meet many packs in New Zealand that are more physical. There was a lot of expectation and we wanted a winning start but it was never going to be easy. There's always uncertainty a couple of days before you board the plane. We all appreciate we've got a lot of work to do but I saw some encouraging aspects. Things will be very different in New Zealand where we'll have a lot more time to prepare.''

In between the trials and tribulations Dallaglio has enjoyed spectacular triumphs. Re-united with Richard Hill and Neil Back they paved the way for England's World Cup triumph with groundbreaking victories in New Zealand and Australia. Before the World Cup final the back row, with a combined age of almost 100, were mocked by Australians as Dad's Army. At 36 Back is the oldest Lion. "I keep reminding people that I'm only 32,'' Dallaglio says. "That's pretty young. In any case it's not about age it's about desire and I really am up for this. If you're playing well you enjoy yourself and for the last three years I've been playing with a smile on my face.''

Dallaglio was an influential member of Johnson's Lions who won in South Africa in 1997, perhaps the most influential forward of the lot. "New Zealand is different to South Africa and Australia because they tend to hold back on these fixtures. I have been to New Zealand three times but I have lost count of my visits to Australia. That's why there's such an aura about this tour. I speak to Australians and they don't have the same feeling because they're more familiar with playing the All Blacks.

"It's up to us to build a momentum and ensure we get better and better and better. Every game has to be treated as a special occasion. The aim is to undermine the confidence of the opposition and we'll immediately get under their skins just by turning up. I've only had a week there before but I've got huge admiration for their culture, rugby and people. I know the cleaning lady is going to talk about the game and it's important to find time to switch off.''

Dallaglio is a party animal. Living in London suits him and he likes the anonymity the city provides. The last Lions tour was a miserable experience for Dallaglio, as it was for other England players, although for different reasons. Some rounded on Henry and said it was all work and no play.

"It is not for me to criticise what happened in Australia,'' Dallaglio said. "Little things didn't go our way. You have to understand that in preparation for the crucial Third Test the Lions had only eight players who were fit enough to train. People could very easily have been talking about the 2001 Lions in glowing terms. This time we're throwing everything at it. We're not in the business of getting it wrong and I think we'll become a very formidable outfit. There's quality throughout the squad and I know what we're capable of. History is against us. We've sent some very good teams to New Zealand and not won.''

Ian McGeechan, invited to join the coaching party after a connection with the Lions spanning more than three decades, was indebted to Dallaglio in South Africa yet the Scot feels you should let sleeping Lions lie, which means retirement from Test rugby should mean just that. "When you retire you're out of that arena and are mentally off the pace,'' McGeechan argues. "It's difficult to get it back.'' Dallaglio intends to disprove the theory of the new Wasps' coach.

"Playing 10 Tests a year takes its toll,'' Dallaglio said. "I haven't lowered the energy I'm putting into my rugby. Focusing on one team rather than two has benefited me and I'm in the best shape I've been for a long, long time. I've got a huge amount of experience to bring to the table and there's no point holding back.''

Will Woodward make him leader of the pack? "I'm not expecting anything and I'd have to earn it. In a way that helps me to front up every time I play. This could be a life-changing experience.'' Once again.

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