Return to leadership for calmer Dallaglio

Former England captain is recalled to the top job with the hubris of old accompanied by a new humility
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The Independent Online

The last time Lawrence Dallaglio led his country - 54 Tests, two World Cups and one deeply damaging tabloid scandal ago - a substantial Welshman by the name of Scott Gibbs stampeded through the England defence in the final seconds of the final match in the old Five Nations' Championship and denied the red rose army a first Grand Slam under Clive Woodward. It says something for Dallaglio's imperishable spirit that, less than a week after Gibbs announced his retirement from all rugby, he should be celebrating a second coming as national captain.

Jeremy Guscott, that prince of centres, famously described the Wasps No 8 as being equipped with the "lungs of an elephant". In addition, he must have the skin of an armadillo and the recovery powers of a West End Lazarus. Lesser sporting mortals would have booked themselves a one-way ticket to Outer Mongolia after finding themselves mercilessly dragged across umpteen pages of the News of the Screws, as the Londoner was in the spring of 1999. Dallaglio faced his public and was back in England white inside four months.

Less determined men would not have reconstructed their careers after the serious knee injuries he suffered before and during the 2001 Lions tour of Australia. Dallaglio, a roamer by nature, accepted the realities of his restricted mobility and reinvented himself as a close-quarters specialist of the highest calibre.

Since that fateful day at Wembley the best part of four years ago, quickly followed by the even more ruinous flirtation with the sex-and-drugs end of the British press, Dallaglio has seen no fewer than nine colleagues lead England into the international arena, and served under five of them - Martin Johnson, Matthew Dawson, Neil Back, Jonny Wilkinson and Phil Vickery.

With the exception of Johnson, who has sensibly called it quits after winning a Grand Slam and a World Cup in the space of eight golden months, all are in Woodward's squad for the forthcoming Six Nations' Championship. When push came to shove, the coach fell back on his original choice as captain.

There was little logic in his doing otherwise. Some drummed up Vickery, the Gloucester prop, and Richard Hill, the Saracens flanker, as more serious contenders for the role, perhaps because Dallaglio had been dropped by Woodward in the autumn of 2002 and had been the butt of some unusually pointed public criticism by the England management during the early stages of the World Cup - comments that did not amuse the Wasp one little bit.

But Vickery has two problems - a desperate injury record and, like most tight-head props, a distinct lack of anything resembling tactical genius - while Hill, as shrewd a strategist as anyone in the national set-up, prefers to go about his work with an air of silence bordering on the Trappist.

If Dallaglio is anything but quiet - he remains a big personality with vocal cords to match - he is also a calmer, more mature footballer as a result of his off-field trials and on-field tribulations. He is the first to accept that he occasionally allowed his natural hubris - some prefer to call it braggadocio - to carry him away in his initial 14-match spell as captain; that game against Wales was an obvious low point, exposing him as it did in all his can-do swagger. But his time under Johnson, who brought to the job all the flamboyance of a middle-ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Transport, has taught him that a boring victory is much more fun than an exhilarating defeat.

Only this week, his club coach could be heard singing his praises from the rooftops. "The thing about Wasps - and Lawrence embodies the spirit of the club as much as anyone - is its inclusiveness," Warren Gatland said glowingly. "There are no prima donnas here, least of all him. If the academy players need help or advice, he's the first to offer it. I can't imagine a situation where he, or any of the other senior professionals, get above themselves and form the kind of clique you sometimes see elsewhere."

Dallaglio will play a similar role with the fast-tracked products of the recently formed National Academy - the likes of Chris Jones, the young Sale forward, and Matt Stevens, the Bath prop, both of whom were included in Woodward's squad.

But at the same time, he will defend his position in the starting line-up with all his might. Few would have taken issue with him had he gone the way of Johnson, but the lure of a third Lions tour next year is, in itself, sufficient temptation for a sportsman of his ambition. We might easily have seen the last of Dallaglio in 1999, and again in 2001. Now, in 2004, it seems he is here for the duration.

LAWRENCE DALLAGLIO: FROM SHEPHERD'S BUSH TO ROME

1972: Born Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio, 10 August, Shepherd's Bush, London.

1989: Wins the Open and Festival Tournaments at Rosslyn Park with Ampleforth College Sevens team.

1990: Joins Wasps.

1993: Plays in England's World Cup Sevens-winning team at Murrayfield.

1994: Tours South Africa with England.

1995: In October, takes over Wasps captaincy when Rob Andrew leaves for Newcastle. Makes Test debut in November against South Africa.

1997: Captains Wasps to league title. Named England captain in October.

1998: Gives up Wasps captaincy and is reappointed England captain until after the 1999 World Cup.

1999: Captains England throughout Five Nations' Championship. Plays in Tetley's Bitter Cup final victory against Newcastle. Resigns as England captain after newspaper allegations that he took drugs, which he flatly denied. RFU drugs case later dropped, but fined £15,000 with £10,000 costs.

2000: Leads Wasps to second successive Tetley's Bitter Cup triumph.

2001: Comes through fitness tests to take place in the Lions squad for tour Down Under but withdraws due to injury.

2002: Returns for final 2002 Six Nations' Championship game against Italy. Wins 49th cap and makes first England start for more than 18 months in victory over New Zealand.

2003: Scores a try against Ireland as England win their first Six Nations Grand Slam for eight years. Helps England defeat Australia 20-17 in the World Cup at Melbourne.

2004: Named England captain for Six Nations' Championship opener against Italy in Rome on 15 February.

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