Dallaglio desperate for last shot at Australia
If Lawrence Dallaglio has a last big game left in him – one final jaw-jutting,elephant-lunged international effort to set a crown on a career of considerable majesty – he would like to play it here, on the shores of the Mediterranean, this coming weekend. "This... is... a... World... Cup... quarter... final... against... Australia," he said yesterday, deliberately leaving long, emphasis-filled gaps between utterances. " You talk of motivation for an English rugby player? The very words provide motivation enough." It was vintage Dallaglio rhetoric, full of the verbal bravura that first established him as the king of the pre-match routine.
Sadly, it was an absence of rugby bravura that let him down in Lens the best part of a month ago and left him prey to another blow to his status as the reigning champions' senior professional. Dallaglio has not started a game in this competition since misfiring against the United States in England's opening match, and while he would happily forfeit a slice of his tournament fee in return for a place in the run-on team against the Wallabies at Stade Velodrome on Saturday, his chances of relieving Nick Easter of the No 8 shirt are no better than 50-50, and probably worse.
"I had first shot at it, and blew the assignment," he admitted. "As a result of my own shortcomings, I look no further than myself in terms of blame. Having failed to take the opportunity I was given, it's now a matter of being patient in waiting for another one. This would be a great game in which to be involved from the kick-off, but if I have to come off the bench, so be it. As I keep telling people, World Cups are won by 30 players, not 15."
Dallaglio is burning with anger, both at himself and at the way this World Cup has unfolded from an English perspective. "I keep hearing that the tournament starts now, but it started with the game against the States," he said. "We can't hide from the fact that we could have played better. Would we have preferred to have won our group and put ourselves in the other half of the draw? Of course. Would we prefer to be playing Fiji this weekend, rather than the Wallabies? Of course. Our lack of form in the early stages means we have to accept playing one of the best teams in the competition at an earlier stage than we would have liked.
"Australia are a good tournament side. They're bright, very adept at hanging on to the ball and good at pulling defenders out of position and exploiting the space they create.
"We've had a tough time, playing under a lot of pressure and under intense scrutiny. We'll be under pressure again this weekend, that's for sure, but we can turn that to our advantage.
"Belief is not an issue – it's amazing what two consecutive wins can do in that regard – and while it's tricky to develop a structure and a style when the side changes from game to game, we've definitely moved forward since the match against South Africa, when we received everything we deserved."
While the 35-year-old Londoner declined to say it in so many words, he believes this is a game for the gnarled hand of the master – albeit an aged master – rather than the pristine hand of the apprentice. "There are people in this squad who know what it is to lose to the Australians, but those players also know what it is to beat them," he remarked. "We'll have to move up a level to take anything from this game, but it's precisely the kind of situation in which international players should thrive. I can see it being a really good battle."
Sitting alongside the Wasps captain was the loose-head prop Andrew Sheridan, who is a certain starter this weekend. That the Sale forward was less forthcoming than his colleague could not be denied: while Dallaglio declaimed at great length, Sheridan restricted himself to a few whispered rebuttals. Did he perhaps see this as a defining moment in his career? A match in which he might forge a reputation as one of the great front-rowers in the world game? "Not really," he replied. Gripping.
He did, however, venture the opinion that the Wallaby scrum was significantly more reliable than the one he single-handedly wrecked at Twickenham a little under two years ago. "There's been a lot of work done in that area," Sheridan said, "so there's no point looking back to 2005. This is about the here and now." He may be a man of few words, but all of them are true.