Lawrence Dallaglio: 'There was not a tremendous amount of planning into what to do once we'd won it'

In 2003 he helped England to win rugby's greatest prize. Now, at the age of 35, Lawrence Dallaglio tells Brian Viner why he is more determined than ever to beat the odds and doubters by defending that crown

For a man whose jaw seems hewn from granite, Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio has never been reluctant to let it wobble with emotion from time to time, and should England's rugby union players confound their 28-1 odds to go all the way in the forthcoming World Cup, the big fella might just cry like a baby.

"I feel very passionate about my Englishness, probably because I'm Italian and Irish as well," he says. "When you're brought up by an Italian father and a mother who's half Irish, there's a passion and an emotion you're very comfortable with. At school [Ampleforth] I had no problem kissing my mum and dad goodbye, which wasn't necessarily the done thing at the time. These days, English people are used to greeting each other with two kisses on the cheek. It's been happening in Italy for ever."

Dallaglio had a memorable blub at the end of the 2003 World Cup semi-final against France, but there is even more scope for emotion this time round, because it isn't just Messrs Hill and Ladbroke who expect the World Champions to lose their grip on the Webb Ellis Trophy. And Dallaglio is a sucker for people winning against the odds.

That the odds against England are so substantial, the mighty Wasps forward ascribes principally to myopia at the Rugby Football Union. "A huge amount of planning went into winning the World Cup, but there was not a tremendous amount of planning into what to do once we'd won it. It's probably something to do with the English mentality. We're not very good at challenging our players, once they've won something, to go from becoming the No 1 team in the world to staying at No 1."

Exhibit A: the 2003 rugby World Cup, I venture; exhibit B: the 2005 Ashes win. "Yeah, you could say that," he says.

It still riles him that England's stay at the summit of world rugby was so brief following those unforgettable scenes in Sydney almost four years ago.

"What upset me is that just a few months later we were sent on tour to New Zealand and Australia to play three Tests against the two countries who probably wanted to beat us the most. What was wrong with giving us a rest, saying, 'You guys have the summer off and start preparing for the next World Cup'? If they'd done that, players would have played a lot better the following season. But in sport you eventually run out of fuel and that's what's happened with England. We're still in the process of refuelling."

What chance the refuelling process being completed before the World Cup final on 20 October? "Well, obviously we go into the World Cup believing we're going to win every game, but to do so we will have to perform above ourselves. It's not like four years ago when we were the best team in the world, coming into a World Cup on the back of a Grand Slam and defeats of Australia and New Zealand home and away. This time, we need a good start against America, and then we have a massive game against South Africa which will determine our destiny, because no team has ever lost a pool game and gone on to win the competition. If we do win the competition, it won't be the result of preparation over several years, it will be the result of some amazing one-off performances. Four years ago, everyone could name pretty much the 15 guys in Clive Woodward's starting team. This time, Brian Ashton's still finding his starting XV. That's not his fault. He and his staff have had to pick up the pieces, and contrary to what certain former England captains think, I think they've turned England into a team moving forward..."

The target of this crack at former England captains is doubtless Will Carling, who recently opined that the 35-year-old Dallaglio might not be a wise pick for the World Cup, on the basis that such a huge character could be a divisive influence in the dressing room. Dallaglio has already said what he thinks of such a notion – about as much as he thinks of the News of the World, into whose "honeytrap" he so obligingly fell in 1999 and consequently lost the England captaincy – but it is true that Carling is not alone in thinking that Dallaglio, his towering performances in Wasps' drive towards Heineken Cup glory notwithstanding, should not have been picked for another tour of duty.

"I wouldn't be in the team if I didn't deserve to be there," he tells me flatly. "I retired from international rugby in 2004, largely for personal reasons, and it seems to upset some people that I changed my mind. They ask what gives me the right to play for England again? Well, I played in a team good enough to become champions of Europe, so I think I have every right."

A beat. "My career has had great moments and acute disappointments. I was in great shape to go on the Lions tour [in 2005], but I broke my ankle and that was very hard to come back from. I didn't walk back into the England team, or talk my way back into it. I am acutely aware of the responsibility of wearing an England shirt. It's not my shirt, it's loaned for the duration of my England career, and when I wear it I'm representing the hopes, dreams and aspirations of millions of people. I take that very seriously. Sport affects people's lives; I know that because I know how I feel when a team I support does well. It makes you feel good about yourself."

Resisting the urge to stand on the table applauding, I ask Dallaglio whether he, as a competitor, is looking forward like any old rugby fan to seeing the great players strutting their stuff. Will it be with sheer pleasure that he watches fancy Dan Carter of New Zealand, for example?

"Sure. The World Cup is an exciting time for rugby. It's our Olympics, our opportunity to play with and against the best best players in the world. New Zealand go in as the No 1 team and they seem comfortable with that label, as we were four years ago. They are certainly the team to beat, and they're widely expected to win, but history tells us that it doesn't always happen like that, and also that you should never write off the host nation. As for individuals, World Cups are not won by individuals. They're won by squads. In every successful team I've ever been involved with, everyone has had to do a job. That's why we spent time with the marines [before the last World Cup]. They don't do what they do without everyone doing their job to the very best of their ability.

"I admire individual performers enormously – golfers, tennis players, boxers – but I enjoy watching and playing team sport more than anything. There's a huge sense of achievement in doing something on your own, but if I was going to climb Everest I would rather do it with somebody else and be able to hold hands at the top. Life is about living and working together, not about being on your own, and to look around the changing room after winning a tough game ... you can't beat that ... that togetherness."

Dallaglio reaches for a nearby box of man-size Kleenex. Actually, he doesn't, but it's a perfectly plausible image. I ask whether togetherness will be enough these next few weeks? "No. We are physically in good shape, and in terms of courage, determination and spirit we are where we need to be, but there are other things we need as well. On the other hand, everyone is keen to jump on England's lack of creativity, but Test matches are won by small margins. The last time we played South Africa in the World Cup the game was won, 21-12, by six Jonny Wilkinson penalties and a pretty unattractive charge down resulting in a Will Greenwood try. We went on to win the competition.

"So, although we cannot afford to make the mistakes we made in Marseilles [in the 22-9 defeat by France last month], although we have to improve on that performance by 30 or 40 per cent per player, looking round the changing room I am a lot more confident than I would have been a year or two ago."

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Carling.

Lawrence Dallaglio was hosting a training session for Sure Sport – the anti-leak grooming range engineered for sports fanatics and the kit bag. For more information visit www.suresportmen.com

Lawrence Dallaglio Life and times

* Full name: Lorenzo Bruno Nero Dallaglio.

* Born: Shepherd's Bush, west London, 10 August 1972.

* Height: 6ft 4in. Weight: 112kg.

* Career details

1990-1996: Wasps FC.

1996-present: London Wasps.

* International career:

One cap for England Under-21s.

80 caps for England, 80 points.

Three caps for the British Lions.

* 1995: Became Wasps captain after Rob Andrew left for Newcastle. Led the team to the title. Made debut for England in November.

* 1997: Member of Lions squad on victorious tour of South Africa. Awarded the England captaincy in the autumn by Clive Woodward.

* 1999: Lost England captaincy to Martin Johnson after a Sunday paper claimed it had recorded him discussing using and selling drugs.

* 2003: Returned to the England set-up as part of the side who won the Grand Slam and World Cup.

* 2004: Regained international captaincy following Johnson's international retirement, before announcing in August that he too was quitting internationals.

* 2006: Made his England comeback in the Six Nations.

* 2007: Part of Wasps' Heineken Cup-winning side.

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