It might seem perverse, on the eve of the Six Nations, to kick off a conversation with Lawrence Dallaglio with a round ball rather than an oval one, but then Dallaglio is a member of an exclusive if unenviable club of men who know what it feels like to be an England captain in the middle of a media firestorm, and in his particular case who also knows what it is like to wake up on a Sunday morning with the News of the World loudly questioning his morals. Moreover, he is a passionate Chelsea fan. So where does he stand on the John Terry affair?
"It's a difficult one for me to answer," he says. "I'm a huge admirer of everything about Chelsea, and John Terry encapsulates Chelsea. From a professional sportsman's point of view I have to admire the way he conducted himself on the day the story broke, the way he captained the team against Burnley and scored the winning goal. For his ability as a leader, he's still the outstanding candidate [to be England captain]."
Back in 1999, so was Dallaglio. But following allegations in the News of the World that he had used and supplied drugs some years earlier, he resigned. Should Terry? After all, it's also worth pointing out that Dallaglio's successor was one Martin Osborne Johnson, who in due course hoisted the World Cup, so it's not as though a team cannot recover from the shameful resignation of its captain.
"It's not a question I'm prepared to answer," Dallaglio says, equably. "One, I know the guy, and two, I'm not in a position to make that judgement. I made my decision based on what I felt was the right thing to do at the time. It didn't stop me playing in the World Cup, and it won't stop him, because they need their best players on the pitch. But it's easy to make moral judgements of others – he who casts the first stone and all that. I was brought up in a very Catholic environment, and I'm sure someone judges all of us eventually. I've done things in my life I'm very proud of, and plenty I'm not so proud of. If people can look in the mirror and call themselves 100 per cent morally sound, then they're in a position to judge John Terry. But I don't think I am."
What Dallaglio does see when he looks in the mirror is a rather reduced version of his former self, although he still looks pretty huge from where I'm sitting, which is in a pub in south-west London, close to where he lives. The loss of weight will help on his forthcoming 2,888 kilometres (1,805 miles) "Cycle Slam" charity bike ride, from Rome to Edinburgh through all the Six Nations capitals, starting in the Stadio Flaminio a week today. First, let us consider another mighty challenge, the one confronting the England manager, Johnson. Does he look with envy at his old team-mate, or does he think "rather you than me"?
"Neither, I look at him with admiration. He was sat in a pretty comfortable place a couple of years ago, but he decided to take himself out of that comfort zone. It's a very difficult job to turn down. He probably thought, 'I know I'm not as qualified for this job as I could be, but I'm being asked to do it, and I don't know when I'll get that opportunity again'."
It is a job made harder, of course, by criticism from some of Johnson's fellow World Cup winners, among them Dallaglio, who opined earlier this week that the England players are far too much in awe of their totemic leader. "Comments from people like myself are made out of patriotism," is Dallaglio's response to this observation, "and they are comments I'm always happy to say to his face."
Very well, then let us mark Johnson out of 10 for the job he has done so far. "That's difficult," he says, "because you're marking an exam that's not finished yet. If you'd given Clive Woodward an end-of-term report in 1997 it wouldn't have been spectacular, and I can tell you that because I was captain. It's tough for Martin, because he's against teams further ahead in their evolution than England, against coaches with phenomenal experience. Warren Gatland coached Ireland for four years, Andy Robinson's been England coach. But this season Martin will be judged more fiercely, and rightly so, because things are starting to come England's way in terms of form and fitness. The first thing they must do now is get that aura back at Twickenham, which is why the importance of the first game [against Wales tomorrow] cannot be overestimated."
Josh Lewsey, for one, has been withering in his criticism of the England coaching staff. Does Dallaglio, too, think that Johnson has the wrong men in place? "It's easy for us to throw slingshots from where we are. What you have to admire is the loyalty he has shown to his staff, and to his captain."
It is an admirably diplomatic answer, I venture, but not to my question. "Well, you are defined by the team you surround yourself with, and he obviously feels confidence in it. I can tell you that it wouldn't be the coaching team I would pick, but I think we get overexcited about coaches. The best rugby teams are led by players, not coaches. The best teams are player-led and coach-driven."
So, assuming England get that equation right, what will constitute a successful Six Nations campaign? "At the moment they have a 50 per cent win record, which obviously isn't good enough, so three [wins] out of five would be success, and anything on top of that a real bonus. Of course, if they beat Wales, they'll then go to Italy and win – we don't know how they'll win but they will win – and by the time they play Ireland the tables may have turned a bit, so you never know."
With Dallaglio seemingly talking himself into the outlandish notion of a Red Rose Grand Slam, let us turn to his own "Cycle Slam". It will take 26 days, which includes two rest days, and his target is to raise £1m, to be divided equally between Sport Relief and his own Dallaglio Foundation, a charity set up in the wake of his mother's death in December 2008. Eileen Dallaglio died of cancer, and Cancer Research is one of five charities his foundation supports. "A million pounds is a bullish number," he says, "but they're all incredibly worthy causes. While we're doing the ride, 19,000 people in this country will be told they've got cancer, and 9,000 will die of cancer."
There will be a core team of seven cyclists completing all five stages of the journey, but 237 have signed up to join in somewhere along the way, including former players from each of the six nations. Diego Dominguez, Raphaël Ibanez, Jonathan Davies, Keith Wood, Gavin Hastings and Jason Leonard will all take to the saddle – which in at least one case might have to be reinforced – as will James Cracknell, Michael Vaughan, Daley Thompson and Sir Ian Botham. "They're all using it as a challenge," Dallaglio says. "We've got Lee Dixon, who's never done any cycling, doing three stages."
His late mother, he adds, is never far from his thoughts. "Her passing is the catalyst for all this. She was the cornerstone of my life and a huge part of my rugby career, as any England coach will testify. She was totally committed to her children – she lost my sister, of course, in the Marchioness [disaster] – and was never backward in coming forward. After my brief appearance off the bench for my first cap in 1995 she went looking for Jack Rowell, and told him he needed to play me from the start the following week." A grin. "Which he did."
Dallaglio ended up with 85 of those caps, in a 12-year international career that comfortably survived the ignominy of his resignation, and left nobody in any doubt as to his ferocious commitment to the England cause, even though he was eligible through his mother to play for Ireland, and via his father to play for Italy. He also won 11 major honours with Wasps, and as he says, "I had as colourful a rugby career as you could ever ask for. Everything that could happen in professional rugby, good and bad, happened to me."
And yet he doesn't miss it. "I'm still in love with the game, but no, I don't miss playing. That ecstasy or agony of winning or losing every week, not to mention having 10 bells knocked out of you, it takes its toll on you and the people around you. I'm still driven to succeed, but I've felt very calm since I retired."
I can testify to this calmness, because at one point during our conversation, a drunk lurches over and insists on taking a photograph of Dallaglio on his mobile phone, not because he wants to record the presence in his local pub of a sporting icon, but, amusingly, because "you look just like my cousin".
The amusement quickly wears off when he continues to stand there, swaying and swearing, yet Dallaglio is a model of forbearance until the man finally careers away. And speaking of career, how does Dallaglio fill that rugby-shaped hole in his life?
"I'm on the board at London Wasps, a club that's very dear to me. I'm involved with sponsors across the rugby world, such as Greene King and Emirates. I'm involved with a call-centre business called The Listening Company, and with a company called Jet Set Sports, who are doing the hospitality at the 2012 Olympics. Business has always fascinated me, I suppose because running a business is like running a team; man-management, motivation, leading by example."
That, he thinks, is why team sports equip people to be successful in business. "As a sportsman you get taught how to deal with self-doubt. On a Tuesday or a Wednesday, you think, 'How the hell are we going to beat this team at the weekend? Look how good they are.' But by Thursday you've started to eradicate the doubt, and by Friday you not only have no doubt any more, you know exactly how you're going to beat them. That's useful in business, too. You work out how to trick yourself into believing things that at the beginning of the week you wouldn't have entertained."
The England rugby players can take heart from that philosophy, and so can John Terry.
To support Lawrence Dallaglio on his ride, donatiions can be made via www.dallagliocycleslam.com. Net proceeds will be shared equally between Sport Relief and the Dallaglio Foundation.Reuse content