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Dallaglio: 'Biggest disappointment is we never built on that legacy'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Lawrence Dallaglio will be dressed up to the nines next Wednesday evening in London 20 years to the very day when England clinched Rugby World Cup glory after extra time versus Australia in Sydney. It’s a rare reunion. For whatever reason, Clive Woodward’s class of 2003 have only ever seldom gathered to commemorate their life-changing triumph, but that is about to change with two quick-succession functions planned in the coming week, catch-ups that will surely accelerate the profile of the book that Dallaglio recently collaborated in.

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His face lit up when asked by RugbyPass to shed light on what is planned. “We have one official event on the actual date in Hammersmith Apollo. We have only got together once as a group and that was 10 years ago so it will be a special evening, and then we have our own event that we have organised privately a couple of days later.

“There were some fond memories recently in a book – I coloured it in, Owen Slot wrote it – called The Boys of Winter where I have interviewed every single player from ’03 and it is a fascinating read because it reflects on the 20 years that have gone and what people’s memories are of Sydney but also was it a good thing that we won, why have we not won anything since, and how did it change your life?

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“It has been a really interesting journey for me personally but also to go and listen to all the players who probably are a bit more lucid, a bit more articulate, and a bit more willing to talk than they were 20 years ago.”

What springs to Dallaglio’s mind about that life-altering era? “I was back playing a week later in the European Cup so I had a good year that year, won the World Cup, and then won the European Cup and the Premiership at the end of the season. No one remembered to give me a rest.

“Listen, it changed everyone’s lives forever and you still get fond memories from people who watched it in whatever rugby club they were in at 10 in the morning. The biggest disappointment I guess is we were never able to build on that legacy. England won one Six Nations title for the next 12 years after that. Winning the World Cup was meticulously planned.

“What might happen after that was not planned at all. It’s fair to say England haven’t scaled the heights that they should have done since then. You can’t always be the best team in the world, but what you can be is be up there in the conversation and England haven’t been in that conversation for quite some time.”

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That grim reality of that post-2003 underachievement is something current England boss Steve Borthwick would do well to consider following on from his team’s recent bronze medal finish at France 2023. For Dallaglio, it’s all about the next campaign. “I said very honestly for the players, from where they were at the beginning of the tournament, they did themselves proud but there is a lot of hard work ahead.

“Steve knows that, the coaches know that and the RFU should know that. For the last two Six Nations, England have lost more games than they have won so first things first, getting the account back into credit in the Six Nations and start winning some games.”

Dallaglio was a frequent Eurostar passenger in recent months, travelling over and back to France from London doing TV punditry during the World Cup, the tournament he described as “fascinating in lots of different ways”. Now that it is all over, he went on to address two legacy issues – where next for the England back row after a campaign where Ben Earl, a club openside, secured the No8 Test berth that Dallaglio occupied 20 years ago in Australia, and the stink that blew up around Wayne Barnes, the Rugby World Cup final referee.

First, his No8 outlook. “With a World Cup, it’s a natural watershed. There are opportunities in that team, in that squad, which is why the Premiership should be exciting over the next 10, 12 weeks because Borthwick has to name a new England squad.

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“It’s up to the likes of Tom Pearson, Tom Willis, Zach Mercer, all these players that were fringe players who for whatever reason were not taken to France, to force their way into the conversation because England need some big boys. If we want to compete we need to get some power back into our game and we need to get some nastiness back into our game in the right way because if you want to compete with the likes of South Africa, France, New Zealand, Ireland, that is what it is going to take.

“We need some pace back in the team and we need some power back in that team as well. That is not to say we haven’t got it but there will be some changes and in the back row there is going to be enormous competition for places. All of the players who were in the squad are very much still up for selection, but I would say there is a number of players now that will be able to force their way back in.

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“Ben Earl has been a magnificent player for England but he had gone straight back to Saracens and is not playing at No8. It’s very clear his best position is on the flank. We shouldn’t be in a position where we pick guys who play flanker every week at No8. New Zealand have done it reluctantly; I’m not sure it is exactly what they want to do with Ardie Savea. But that is where England are at and they need to find that consistency in their selection. With that consistency comes trust and a messaging that helps you to build a successful side.”

Switching to the now-retired Barnes, who copped a brutal amount of online criticism following South Africa’s one-point win over New Zealand last month, Dallaglio had his fellow countryman’s back and wants the game to root out the scourge of social media abuse. “He has been the best referee for quite some time, probably should have refereed the World Cup final in Japan but England rather inconveniently played a blinder in the semi-final.

“His first Premiership final was my last game of rugby for Wasps and he has been a magnificent referee. The preparation and the work that goes into every game are incredible and if you talk to anyone in the game they would say he goes down as one of the all-time greats. I’m delighted he got to referee a World Cup final and he thoroughly deserves to enjoy his retirement.

“There is no place in the game for any of that nonsense that was directed towards him on social media. For those of us who know, he has been the best referee for quite some time. It was a pleasure to have him on (my podcast). It was really interesting to listen to his insights about how he prepares for games, how he talks to players, and what he thinks the role of the TMO is in the future of the game.

“We don’t want to be a game that is decided by action replay. It’s not just rugby. Every sport has its issues with how it uses technology and it’s about how it makes that technology a better experience for the fans.

“What was really fascinating about what Wayne Barnes said was he gets a list of 15, 20 decisions from each DoR after an international game that could have been interpreted differently and on the other side, all the DoRs sit down together and decide we need to speed the game up. On the one hand, they want a quicker game but on the other, they want you to get every decision right. That’s not always going to happen because the laws of rugby aren’t quite as black and white as maybe they are in other sports.”

With his jaunts to France at an end, Dallaglio has in recent weeks returned to his punditry bread and butter, commenting on the Gallagher Premiership for TNT Sports. For sure, the calibre of the action in the English league continues to be edge-of-seat entertainment, but has the hole in the 51-year-old’s heart that was last year’s spectacular financial demise of Wasps mended yet amid reports they are plotting a rebirth in Sevenoaks, an area in Kent that is more than 200kms south from their Coventry failure?

“It’s early days,” he admitted. “What I can tell you is there is a desire from everyone within the club to return Wasps to the highest possible league. There is still a long way to go. Financially there were a lot of mistakes made, not only by Wasps but by the league itself and by the authorities. We can all finger point but everyone needs to hold their hands up and say certain things were done poorly.

“Interestingly with football now appointing an independent financial controller to run the Premier League, it will be fascinating to see which direction rugby goes because whatever you say and whichever club you are from, it’s not been run particularly well up to now and there needs to be some leadership and governance from the top of the game to understand what the future of English rugby looks like.

“Is it a Premiership 1, Premiership 2? Is there funding? There was funding years ago, lots of funding, £650k each club used to get and that was reduced to about £80k. Is there a pathway from Prem 2 to Prem 1? If you want institutional and private investment you are going to have to go to it with a plan that will include at some point the ability to get promoted back into the Premiership.

“What we all want is that little bit of clarity and that little bit of leadership coming from whoever is running English rugby these days, a mix of the RFU and Premiership Rugby. There is talk about a plan and Wasps, London Irish, Worcester, whoever, very much hope they are part of that.

“We have to remember there are several hundreds of thousands of rugby players in this country but there has actually only ever been one league of professional clubs which is a very small number of players. That league has been diminished.

“I have always said this: Wasps is not a place, it has always been about the people which is why we have the ability to go to Kent if want to. A lot of good data from all the professional bodies suggests that Kent would be a fantastic place to put a rugby club but more importantly, there is an incredible amount of empathy and support from Sevenoaks District Council who want to create a multi-use stadium for elite sport that would include Wasps.

“That is not a fairy tale, that is not a pie-in-the-sky idea. That is something that could happen within the next four to five years but before it can happen we need some guidance and leadership from the governing bodies of the sport to be able to go and rebuild in the most appropriate way,” he said, going on to reference speculation that enrollment in the rival URC might be another route to go.

“I’m playing a role in the background because there is no role to play at the moment. Until we know what is happening there is not really much to do. We would love to go find some investment. We are not in a situation where we are going to promise anyone a playing contract unless it can be honoured for the duration of that playing contract.

“We are not there yet but there is a real desire to get there. We’re certainly making all the right noises, and having all the right conversations. There has been talk of the URC possibly. Those conversations are ongoing because you need to keep all your options open in this day and age.

“No one would have told me South African teams would be playing in the European Cup a few years ago. No one would have said that three clubs – Wasps, London Irish and Worcester – would go under and potentially more going under as well. Anything is possible in our wonderful game of professional rugby these days.”

Growth is imperative. “If we want to grow our sport people need to know who is playing it. There is a hardcore of rugby fans in this country who will always follow rugby. Whatever TV channel it is on they will follow it but we need to grow that and the only way of growing that is by having an emotional connection with the sport and by understanding its participants.

“Not many people sit down and watch TV like they used to and consume sport like they used to so we need to continue to make the live experience a better one at all clubs and we need to make the TV experience a better one.

“TNT, for which I am lucky enough to work, we’re very excited about this season because it is a fresh-looking approach but we need buy-in from the clubs as well. I mean, when I was captain of Wasps, I used to have to attend a press conference whether I liked it or not and I had to front up because I was captain of the club.

“We didn’t palm off with some guy who played a handful of first-team games. It’s the captain and the club DoR and if we want to grow our sport, I would like to see a lot of the leading players take a role in that. We can’t just think that people will come and watch rugby.

“We need to build a narrative, we need to give people a reason to come and watch, we need to get excited about the players that are playing and people need to know who they are, not just on the field but off the field as well.

“I’m passionate about it, about international and domestic rugby. We all need to work harder at it. We are only enemies for 80 minutes and we have to remember that and the rest of the time we need to work collaboratively and collegiately to grow our sport because there are other sports that are doing that and they are jumping ahead.

“We can’t just sit back and think that rugby is going to potter along and people are just going to roll into stadiums because that is not how it works anymore.”

  • Watch Exeter Chiefs vs Gloucester exclusively live on TNT Sports 1 and discovery+ from 2:30pm on Sunday, November 19. Stream the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Derby Weekend live on discovery+ or watch on TNT Sports channels on BT, Sky, and Virgin Media. This isn’t Just Rugby, This is Personal. For more info visit: tntsports.co.uk/rugby
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