THE FUTURE was looking cloudless for Lawrence Dallaglio back in the spring of 1998 when he agreed to be a Guiding Star for a new series on Sky One. The station had already signed up David Seaman to manage a park football side, and a page three girl to teach wannabe page three girls how to, well, how to get undressed, presumably. Dallaglio, meanwhile, was asked to coach the Bancroft Women's Rugby Union Club as they prepared for a big sevens tournament.
A few days' filming, a nice wedge of green in the pocket of his shorts, and an hour's worth of positive publicity for the lantern-jawed England captain. It seemed too easy to be true. But of course, no sooner was the film in the can than the biggest, blackest cloud Dallaglio had ever seen suddenly appeared on the horizon. What Murdoch giveth with one hand, one of the countless others was about to take away.
And so it was that while last week's Guiding Star still looked like a blatant PR exercise, it felt altogether less cosy than originally intended. Try as you might, you could never forget the awful mess into which this rather quiet, self-conscious giant of a man was about to blunder. The central figure was no longer a talented player on the way up, but a daft one in danger of sliding down the other side.
It meant that it was impossible to watch otherwise innocent moments without smirking. His team, for instance, spent a night during the two-day tournament all tucked up together in a large tent. Lawrence, however, decided to sleep elsewhere, and thank heaven for that. Imagine what the Screws would have made of it. Scrum Down! Saucy No 8 scores seven before breakfast! It doesn't bear thinking about.
At least he didn't describe Bancroft's eventual success in the tournament - in fact, it was in the consolation event for also-rans - as "one of the biggest highs of my life". Or if he did, Sky were kind enough to cut it out. But to be fair to Dallaglio, his team's transformation did seem to be a cause for credit.
The previous year, this bunch of apparent no-hopers had finished 60th in a field of 64. Now, despite some embarrassing defeats on day one, they came through on day two to win three matches in a row, and beat the Army, no less, to take the trophy for the Best Of The Rest. BSkyB, cynics may point out, would do anything for ratings, but surely even they would not corrupt an entire rugby tournament in the quest for sexier television. You have to hope not, anyway.
This wholesale transformation in Bancroft's fortunes seemed to have come about as the result of two training sessions with Dallaglio and a lecture on nutrition and exercise from Wasps' diet guru. "I realise," he told them, "that shopping and McDonald's are slightly higher priorities than [exercise] twice a week on your own." If they hadn't been so out of shape, they would probably have killed him. "What about alcohol?" someone asked. Lawrence decided that he would field that one himself. "The general rule," he told them, "is that we don't touch it for two or three days before a game." Now why couldn't he have said something like that to those nasty people from the News of the World?
Dallaglio's international career, of course, is pretty much back on track. He was in the thick of it on Friday, as England ran 100-odd points past Tonga, in yet another match which forced you to wonder whether ITV really took a close look at what they were signing when they bought the rights to the World Cup.
At least there was a crowd for this one, unlike so many of the first- round games. And yes, Wales against Samoa on Thursday also had an audience, and was thoroughly entertaining too, particularly when the referee adopted the Old Trafford approach to injury time - the home side are behind, so keep playing - and the Welsh still couldn't win. But what both ITV and, more pointedly, their advertisers, must be wondering is whether every empty seat at, say, Murrayfield for Scotland v Uruguay represents 10, 100 or even 1,000 empty sofas in Britain's living rooms.
In the same way that many people only watch the Boat Race in case one of the crews sinks, those who watch the early games are probably waiting only for the fights. The Americans are often derided for calling their baseball final the World Series, but it is no less ridiculous to call a tournament the World Cup when everyone knows that by the time of the semi-finals, it will almost certainly be the Tri-Nations Plus One.
Nine, perhaps even 13, sacrificial victims for the major southern-hemisphere sides might have been bearable. Seventeen is a turn-off, in every sense, but no doubt the organisers felt that they had corporate packages to sell, advertisers to accommodate and potential sponsors to keep happy. And that, of course, rather brings us back to Lawrence Dallaglio.
Wood, Greg. "Sport on TV: Dallaglio's delivery brings a smirk to the cynical." Independent on Sunday [London, England] 17 Oct. 1999