On the face of it, the Wellington club was not the best place to bump into Lawrence Dallaglio. The connotations were obvious and the Wasps captain, a lifelong Chelsea fan who once had a run-in with the red-top papers himself, had followed closely the case of John Terry and Jody Morris.
But not for Dallaglio a doorstep imbroglio. A few days shy of today's Zurich Premiership match against Saracens, he was relaxed in the throng of the plush drinking den in Knightsbridge, sipping an orange juice and in contemplative mood at this early stage in a long season which has the World Cup ever looming on its horizon.
The occasion was the London launch of the Eden Park clothing range, in which Dallaglio has a stake along with Wasps past and present Kenny Logan, Gareth Rees and Rob Henderson. Dallaglio is a London lad, born in Shepherd's Bush. What once would have been called "the scene" round these parts does not faze him. He cut an immense figure even before he piled on a few pounds of muscle during a 10-month lay-off after injuring a knee on the Lions' tour in June 2001. In any case, he was never the type to blend in with the crowd.
Right now, he is telling guests and business partners alike that he is fit and well and enjoying his rugby again. Which is welcome news to Wasps and England, who have both found a healthy Dallaglio indispensable over the years.
"I just need to be a bit sharper," he said. "I'm certainly happy but I feel there's a lot more to come. So far, Wasps have had one win, one defeat and a draw, and at times we've been very good, but we've made mistakes which have cost us valuable points. I'm at that stage as well. I've done things which are uncharacteristic, so there's room for improvement."
Today, at their new home in Wycombe, Wasps stage a displaced north London derby against Saracens. A crowd of close to the capacity of 11,000 is expected and already there is talk of never going back to Loftus Road. "It's a better experience all round for spectators, players and everyone involved," said Dallaglio. "You can park your car and be sure that all four wheels will be on it when you get back. There's a slight problem with access to the ground, but they're working on that."
Although able to switch to the blindside when the situation demands, Dallaglio is concentrating on No 8 in order to forge a partnership at the base of the scrum with Wasps' solitary new signing, the Welsh scrum-half Rob Howley.
It is a partnership the pair twice failed to get off the ground, on successive Lions tours, because of injury. "Rob's settled in well and it's a nice combination," said Dallaglio. "The good thing is that we are creating bucketloads of chances. We've scored nine tries in three games, and picked up two bonus points. We could easily be sitting top of the league. All three games have gone to the last 10 minutes, and we've got to get used to playing the full 80."
While Howley has given up the international game, the desire still burns within Dallaglio. He regained the England captaincy for the short summer tour to Argentina (albeit while Martin Johnson was rested) but missed out to have an operation on his hand. Apart from a substitute appearance against Italy in the land of his father last April, Dallaglio has not been seen on a Test field since April last year.
Others have pressed their claims in his absence, including club-mate Joe Worsley. Dallaglio relishes the challenge. "I don't think England have ever been in the position we're in now," he said. "From one to 15 there's three, four or even five deep in each position. Selection will be very tough this year and every one's gearing themselves towards the first game against New Zealand, and getting excited about it. I'm not thinking about the captaincy. A starting place in the team is what I'm aiming for. I think I've got the ability to play both six and eight, and it's up to me now to prove I'm worthy of a position."
Dallaglio has always measured the vicissitudes of his chosen career against the terrible blow of his sister's death, when he was a teenager, in the Marchioness disaster. "I missed big games for club and country but you can't worry about it. You work hard in the knowledge that the opportunity will come again. I had the benefit – initially at least – of having a break, mentally and physically. If anything got me down it was Wasps's performances last season. For a club who always regarded ourselves as part of the elite in England, to have been bottom at Christmas, staring relegation in the eye, was particularly disappointing. Not being able to do anything about that in a playing sense was frustrating."
Dallaglio turned 30 last month. He has done well from rugby, and lives comfortably with partner Alice and three children (the youngest, Enzo, is one next month) near Richmond. No one has done more to move with rugby's changing times yet he has stayed loyal to one club; 12 years a Wasp.
All in all, the Wellington suits him. Wellington, as in Duke of. There are many still content to fall in behind Lawrence Dallaglio.
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