George Orwell once remarked that a man reaches 50 with the face he deserves. Lawrence Dallaglio got there 15 years early. He still looks the picture of health, damn him, but he has more scar tissue than hair these days - when he emerged from the training field shortly before lunchtime, there was a fresh bloodying of the left eye – and his expression occasionally betrays a hint of weariness. It has been hard work, single-handedly providing the most successful team in England with its conscience and its life force as well as playing the best part of 400 games as a loose forward, and he has finally had his fill.
Tomorrow, before the biggest audience to watch a club rugby match anywhere in the world, the two-time England captain, three-time Lion and 24-carat Wasps diamond will end a career that began in the autumn of 1993 with a London derby appearance against Harlequins – a game that attracted 6,000 spectators, around 76,000 fewer than hold tickets for this weekend's Guinness Premiership final with Leicester. "The usual suspects," he said. "Whatever we seem to do, it always comes down to a game against Leicester. They've become the barometer for us, as we have for them."
It is not overstating the case to suggest that Dallaglio has been a barometer for the entire sport. He was not the first rock'n'roll rugby player – Will Carling attracted the interest of celebrity-obsessed media types before his immediate-successor-but-one as national captain was out of his teens – but Dallaglio lived the high life more energetically than most (he would pay a price in 1999 when the News of the World went for the jugular, splashing the gore across five pages at the front end of the paper). Soon after rugby union professionalised itself, he quickly became its most marketable property, its public face. Even now, more than a decade on, he bestrides and dominates. No one – not even Martin Johnson or Jonny Wilkinson – embodied the spirit of the age like Dallaglio.
He is the last member of the "Holy Trinity" – the England back row at the heart of the World Cup triumph five years ago – to formally acknowledge the existence of an ageing process and jack it in. Neil Back, proud owner of the most beaten-up face in British sport, bowed to the inevitable in 2005; Richard Hill somehow kept going on his one good leg until three weeks ago. On the basis that he can still stand in front of a camera without cracking the lens and walk without a limp, Dallaglio appears in better nick than either of his comrades, but he has travelled the longer and harder road.
Unlike many of those who make their way in top-level union, he knew rejection before shaking hands with success: his failure to make the England Schools side as a teenager reduced him to tears, and much to his discomfort, he was still crying at a bus stop in Putney when a similarly youthful Kyran Bracken drove past with his parents and offered him a lift. "It was all right for Kyran," Dallaglio would say years later. "He was already recognised as a star of the future, and there was no debate about who would be playing scrum-half for England Schools that season."
Worse – infinitely worse – was the loss of his sister Francesca, who was among 51 who died when the pleasure boat Marchioness sank after a collision with a dredger on the Thames in 1989. For a while afterwards, Dallaglio lived on a houseboat on the river, reflecting on the tragedy and regaining some emotional equilibrium. His sense of purpose restored, he threw himself at his rugby and plotted a course into the Wasps first team, only to see the club torn apart by the departures of Rob Andrew, Dean Ryan, Steve Bates and Nick Popplewell – the spine of the side – to Newcastle, where money was being thrown around like confetti. At 23, Dallaglio was asked to take over the captaincy of a team on its uppers. His response was deeply characteristic. "Amazed as I was," he recalled, "I said what I had said to most things in life: 'Yes.'"
Then came the injuries: not just the routine wrenchings and snappings that affect virtually every player at some stage or other, but desperate orthopaedic calamities than forced him into a radical reconsideration of his entire approach to the game. No long able to roam far and wide as a fast, physically imposing continuity player – Jeremy Guscott, the prince of England centres, credited him with having the "lungs of an elephant" after one particularly sensational try-scoring dash against France at Twickenham – he responded by developing a tighter, power-driven style that would prove to be every bit as effective.
"You do what you have to do in order to survive," he said yesterday. "The struggles, the disillusionment, the really bad times – they come to us all, sooner or later. The last time I went through it, a couple of seasons back, I thought about walking away. But I'm glad I made the decision to stick it out until now, even though my ability to do the things I used to do has deteriorated a good deal. It's the emotional connection, isn't it? I've never been able to separate emotion from the sport I play, because rugby is about the whole individual. The thing you get in a match is me, not just the rugby-playing me. The body no longer keeps pace with the brain and it's frustrating, but I'm happy to be here for this last match. Wasps versus Leicester? In the professional era, it's been the game. The great rivalry."
According to Ian McGeechan, the Wasps director of rugby, tomorrow's final signals the passing of an epoch. He first worked with Dallaglio on the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa – his umpteenth trip with the British Isles collective, but the player's first. "Lawrence was not an experienced international at that stage, but he quickly emerged as an influential figure in the group and it was natural to see him as a senior player, despite his obvious lack of seniority.
"I was in club coaching with Northampton at the time, and in that environment, you get a feel for the people you're coaching against as well as those with whom you're working. The impression I had of Lawrence was entirely positive: here was a player who was keen to think, keen to provide feedback. I look at his development in the context of his partnership with Hill, Back and Tim Rodber – a special group of forwards coming together and evolving together. They took so much confidence from each other against the Springboks, and the rest is history. They went on to influence the progress of the whole game.
"The key thing with Lawrence is his refusal to compromise. Will we see his like again? It's difficult to say. Those people who played top-level rugby in the amateur era and crossed into professionalism – and there are very few of them left – understand the importance of enjoyment. It's vital to the wellbeing of the sport that we hold on to that understanding, because in my opinion, a player has no chance of fulfilling his potential unless he enjoys, really enjoys, what he's doing. Lawrence is an example of someone acutely aware of the value of enjoyment." McGeechan paused, then added with a grin: "When he's in the company of someone like Jason Leonard, he's an exceptional example."
Already, Dallaglio is halfway to becoming a professional coach – "Yes, I'm doing my badges" – but he will not assume tracksuit duties for the foreseeable future. Instead, he will work with Wasps on the corporate front, schmoozing with existing business partners and selling the club to those who have yet to invest. "We need Lawrence to help bring in the money so we can spend it on players," explained McGeechan.
"Rugby is about to take another of its big leaps," Dallaglio predicted, " and we at Wasps have to leap with it. Leicester are building a stadium that will ultimately hold 30,000-plus spectators; Gloucester already have a rugby cathedral at Kingsholm, and plan to make it bigger. I was never much of a long-term planner as a player, but this club needs to be in control of its destiny. We have a fantastic game in this country, watched by growing numbers of people. In five years' time, 10 years' time, I want Wasps to be winning the things we've won in recent seasons."
First things first, though. "I can honestly say that in the build-up to this final, which is a Test match in everything but name, I haven't been caught up in any kind of last-game stuff. Maybe it's because we've been in finals so often over the last few years. The season could have ended three weeks ago at Leeds, or the week after when we played Bath in the semi-final. It didn't. It will end this weekend against a team every bit as capable as us of nailing a victory when it matters.
"Like everyone else in the team, I have to be very clear-headed about this, and I will be. Wasps were winning big matches before I arrived here, and they'll win things after I'm gone because there are people here ready and able to pick up the baton. The important thing is to win this game and end our season in the right way. After we do that, we'll think about getting all emotional with each other."
Voice of an angel: The choir boy who backed Tina Turner
Born in Shepherd's Bush, London, Lawrence Dallaglio was educated at King's House School in Richmond and at Ampleforth College, where he was known as "Del Boy". In 1985, he was a 13-year-old singer in the King's House School choir, and along with 20 other choristers sang backing vocals on the Tina Turner record "We Don't Need Another Hero", which was featured in the film "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome". Dallaglio's contribution only emerged in 2005, when the Musicians' Union was attempting to track down the choristers, who had never been paid. Other notable gigs for the choir included the wedding of the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and singer Sarah Brightman, and Lloyd Webber's musical "Evita" in London's West End.
Action man: Dallaglio's career
Born 10 August 1972.
1993 Plays first of 352 games for Wasps.
1994 Tours South Africa with England. Wins first of 85 caps.
1995 Becomes Wasps captain. Nov: England debut, as a substitute against Springboks.
1997 Lions tour to South Africa; wins first of three caps. Later named England captain.
1999 Resigns as England captain following a tabloid story.
2003 Wins Grand Slam and World Cup with England.
2004 Regains England captaincy but announces international retirement in August.
2005 Joins Lions tour to New Zealand but breaks ankle in first game. Later, makes himself available for England again.
2007 Leads Wasps to second Heineken Cup victory, against Leicester. Comes off the bench in World Cup final.
Lasting impressions: Players share their Dallaglio memories
Back row opponent for France, and London Irish; brother-in law of Dallaglio's Wasps team-mate Raphael Ibañez; now assistant coach of Brive
'Lawrence was one of the best players I played against. I think the main thing about him is that mentally he is so strong – he never gives up during 80 minutes. I remember when we played against England in the World Cup semi-final in 2003 and we saw the rain fall down on the way to the stadium we knew it would be very hard to win, because that England team knew how to play in those conditions and in Lawrence, Martin Johnson, Richard Hill, Neil Back, they had players who were very strong in the mind. And that was the difference between France and England that night.'
Back-row opponent for Wales, Llanelli Scarlets and Richmond; back-row colleague for British and Irish Lions; now Sky Sports analyst
'The first time I encountered Lawrence was up in Fylde, for Wales Colts against England Colts in 1990. I managed to sneak over the line for a couple of tries against him – four, I think it was – but unfortunately I peaked too early against Lawrence. We had some great battles down the years and in an England jersey he certainly came out the victor on the results front. He's had a remarkable career and I think it's only fitting that it comes to an end in a big game at Twickenham. I'll be watching him on Sky duty.'
Back-row colleague in England's World Cup-winning team of 2003 and fellow British Lion; opponent for Saracens; retired three weeks ago
'The first time I got to know Lawrence we were rooming together before an England Under 21s game against the French Armed Forces. He's always been fairly driven and he's been great for rugby. He's one of a group of people who have increased the profile of the sport in a very positive way. As an opponent, he's a very tough competitor. You knew from Lawrence that he was going to be very competitive around the ball and certainly if he wasn't touching the ball you could bet he had something close to it that was slowing it down.'
Colleague in England's World Cup Sevens winning team in 1993 and with Wasps; former England centre; now chief executive of the Professional Rugby Players' Association
'We'd been club-mates for a couple of seasons before the World Cup Sevens at Murrayfield in 1993 and those who knew Lawrence knew he was a rare talent. We went into the tournament as "no-hopers". The Australian team we played in the final had Michael Lynagh, Matt Burke, David Campese, Willie Ofahengaue and for this ramshackle bunch of English players to not just beat them but New Zealand and Fiji along the way was quite something. It's been a privilege to play with Dallaglio and watch him achieve what he has.'