Modern game's grinding treadmill cuts short Dallaglio's England career

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The Independent Online

Lawrence Dallaglio, the latest England captain to go gently into the good night of international retirement, was adamant: his decision was not a cop-out or an early surrender in the face of likely defeats to come, but an open and honest recognition that the treadmill of professional rugby had become too consuming even for a competitive spirit as powerful as his own. "I want my life back," he said at Twickenham yesterday.

"I want to spend more time being the person I am, which is not the person you see on the rugby field." Like his colleague and rival Martin Johnson before him, Dallaglio vacated the Test arena with considerable dignity. He will continue to play for - and give an enormous percentage of his physical and mental energy to - the Wasps club - champions of both Europe and England, and a side intent on defending their titles over the coming months. He may even tour New Zealand with the British and Irish Lions next summer. But he will not wear the white shirt of his country again, and if he had regrets, they were too few to mention as he set about confirming and explaining his departure.

"It is easy for people to point to the defeats in New Zealand and Australia in June as a reason for my decision, but taken as a whole, last season was difficult to beat: a World Cup victory with England, Heineken Cup and Premiership victories with Wasps. The tour was very disappointing because we all like to win, and I suppose it tarnished an incredibly successful year. But in a sick kind of way, I enjoyed the challenge of the trip. I'm not retiring because of what happened over there, or as a reaction to our last five or six international results.

"There has been no falling out with anyone, either. The fact is that rugby has become a treadmill, one I have been unable to get off until now. I've had three weeks off a year for the last three years, and it's not realistic to carry on like that in a sport so unforgiving, one that imposes such a brutal structure on its players. I've always felt, as did those of my colleagues who have reached similar decisions, that I would know almost instinctively when it was the right time to retire. I feel that time is now."

England badly needed Dallaglio's experience in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, and if truth be told, they need it still. With the likes of Johnson, Neil Back, Jason Leonard and Kyran Bracken all gone, and a number of other senior players - Jonny Wilkinson, Phil Vickery, Mike Catt, Will Greenwood, Ben Kay - either inching their way back after serious injury or struggling for form, the loss of the captain will be hard to bear. The Springboks and the Wallabies play at Twickenham in November, and both will now expect to win.

Dallaglio himself sees problems ahead - a disconcerting development, given the bottomless depth of the No 8's can-do optimism throughout the decade he spent in the England back row. "I'm not sure the fixture structure is right in terms of achieving success at international level," he said. "If the structure was better, if England players had been centrally contracted years ago, I might not be here now, announcing my retirement. The ferocity of the modern game is such that someone needs to take a serious look at the fixture list.

"Yes, the England team that won the World Cup is breaking up; it was always going to happen, because we weren't the youngest side ever to play Test rugby. And yes, the public will need to exercise a degree of patience through this transitional stage. But expectations are high, quite reasonably so, and we can't go on losing games. However pessimistic people may be about the immediate future, things look bright enough in the longer term. The important thing will be to get something from the autumn internationals at Twickenham." Clive Woodward, who may yet coach him on the Lions tour next year, described Dallaglio as "an outstanding player and a great captain". Malcolm Phillips, the new president of the Rugby Football Union, formally thanked the 32-year-old forward for his "huge contribution over 10 years" and added: "He has never given anything less than his best for his country".

Meanwhile, Dallaglio's club coach, the New Zealander Warren Gatland, said the player would be "missed on the international stage". And he said it with considerable delight. A fit Dallaglio, fully committed to the Wasps cause on a permanent basis, will be an enormous asset to the champions of all they survey. The odds on them winning at least one major trophy this season were short enough to start with. They are now shorter still.

Who's leading in the leadership stakes

Jonny Wilkinson

Back after eight months of injury trauma, the pin-up boy is the likeliest long-term captain. Leadership experience at club level and led when England beat Italy 40-5 last year.

Phil Vickery

Captain in Argentina two years ago. Is Wilkinson's closest rival but has back problems.

Richard Hill

Quietly authoritative, and an automatic choice in the pack. Would command instant respect from what is likely to be a young, unfamiliar team. But does he want the hassle?

Matthew Dawson

A natural competitor, who can mine a rich seam of experience at England and Lions levels. But in decline as a scrum-half.

Ben Kay

Six months ago, was an outside bet to beat Dallaglio to the captaincy - then came a drop in form. Intelligent and influential, must rediscover the best of himself if he is to challenge.

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