Dallaglio, who was capped 85 times and played for the London club Wasps for more than 18 years, admitted to using the emotions prompted by his elder sister's death during every game. "If you find the right emotional touch points, the power of what you can achieve is phenomenal. In every game I've ever played, I always thought about my sister at some point. I feel a bit guilty about this sometimes, because I don't know how much of that was just natural or how much I used her passing and all the emotions that created, as a means of getting into the right frame of mind that I needed to.” Dallaglio's 19-year-old sister, Francesca, a ballerina, was the youngest of 51 people to die in the Marchioness disaster in 1989, when the pleasure boat Marchioness, which played host to a private birthday party, sank after being hit by the dredger Bowbelle.
He repressed his feelings for years. "Emotionally retarded", as he admits, he almost lost Alice, the mother of his three children, before their reconciliation and marriage on Lake Como in 2008. Meanwhile, rugby has been his refuge and his life. Perhaps that partially accounts for the shocked fallout from his autobiography and his post-World Cup criticism of his team coach, Ashton. Mistake? "Erm, not sure really. Put it this way, I've never been short of opinion and I wanted to be very honest and quite frank in the book. I don't necessarily regret that. But there's always lessons to learn and the lesson is I could have had a lot more control about the serialisation. Obviously I'm responsible for my own quotes but I think what I said was probably just sensationalised and it became a story because of the timing. I definitely do regret the timing. But I didn't do it to sell books. People may not believe this, but during the World Cup I was concentrating on the rugby, not the book. I was too busy with my head buried up someone's backside. Literally," he said wryly.
He has been accused of disloyalty, a breach of rugby's decent traditions. "Well, in some people's minds, yes." He sighed. "I wouldn't say I've covered myself in glory these last two weeks but I've just tried to be honest. They are my opinions but I have spoken to Brian since. I thought it was important to speak to him and, ironically, what we said should probably stay between us. It was a conversation and it was positive. The controversy has left a sour taste in my mouth. I'm better than that. I'd like to remember the World Cup as a time when a team showed a lot of great British qualities like character, spirit and sheer bloody-mindedness.”
That, you note, is a fairly accurate portrait of Lawrence Bruno Nero himself to which you could add: theatricality, hot-headedness and occasional bouts of sheer stupidity. He shook his head. "You are who you are. I've got a lot of faults. I'm the first to admit it. I had this elder sister who was a model pupil. She worked incredibly hard and I was the opposite. Maybe I painted myself in the book as too much a tearaway. I was just a bit cheeky really."
He was certainly busy, running (and shoplifting) with the backstreet boys of Barnes one minute and mixing with the scions of the aristocracy at Ampleforth the next. But whatever he did, he unfailingly added the ingredient of gusto. He tells the story of arriving at the venerable school run by monks in North Yorkshire, a 13-year-old completely on his own in the driving snow weighed down by three bags and a set of golf clubs. It was his first taste of serious weight training.
He sought trouble or it sought him. He was suspended at least once for a brawl with the Yorkshire locals that resulted in hospitalisation for some of the unluckier combatants. Later, during his England career, he was relieved of the captaincy when a sting by the News of the World induced him to boast of a drug-dealing past. His life resembles a single-handed yacht going round Cape Horn, either on a vibrant crest or sunk in a deep and lowering trough.
His Italian father had bequeathed him a Latin temperament and his mother, from the East End of London, gave him a wonderful, but volatile, combination of confidence and flamboyance. "?'Think Big. Aim High. Shoot for the moon and you'll be among the stars', she always used to tell me. And why not?” He does know, however, that his nature is not universally lovable. "That sort of behaviour can rub people up the wrong way. No doubt, if you walk into a room of 10 people, seven people will like you and three won't. I don't seek the limelight." He paused to rephrase. "I don't deliberately seek the limelight but I won't shy away from it. I suppose I just feel compelled to try and take control of things.”
Whatever else he is, he is a team man. "When you break bread with players - as Cliff Morgan says - it creates a special bond. The players that won the 2003 World Cup had grown together as a group. We'd seen each other at our best and worst. I loved that time in Australia. From the minute I arrived to the minute I left, I loved everything about it. Life couldn't be better.” The same, he noted, could not entirely be said of his team-mate, Jonny Wilkinson, who he spotted going out for a walk one day in heavy disguise. "This guy went past us wearing a polo neck, some kind of hat pulled own over his forehand and dark glasses so big they looked like ski goggles. "Oh, I felt for him. I can't speak on his behalf but Jonny is the sort of guy who takes that pressure on his shoulders. I'm a firm believer that if you behave normally, people will treat you normally. I'm very comfortable interacting with the fans. They're the people who make the game what it is. Jonny's shy. But then again I'm not the quarterback, the fly-half, the goalkicker who's got to kick the goals and be the main man. All I know is that he's an incredibly dedicated, hard-working role model for the game.”
This man goes back a long way in rugby. He remembers a world without ice baths and protein drinks, when he trained alongside a jeweller, a lawyer, a surveyor, a student, among the other characters at Wasps. He is grateful for insight: before and after professionalism. Typically, he loved both and now he has to admit a "little bit of nervousness" at the thought of his playing career coming towards the end. Where will he put all that sheer brute force and energy that once led a disgruntled New Zealand to call the 2003 England team a bunch of "white Orcs on steroids”? "That is a challenge," he conceded. "The whole physical side of rugby is an emotional rollercoaster. You have to work yourself up into a frenzy every week and then you have to come off the pitch as though nothing's happened. Come right back down again without the help of any sedatives. Then you do it all again the next week. It does pull your emotions about. Rugby's been my life, but I know I've paid a price for it, both physically and mentally.”
It has not an easy scene to leave. "Without being too theatrical about it, rugby is gladiatorial. The Romans used to be quite happy when people hurt each other." He implies that the feeling of modern rugby crowds is mutual and he, for one, does not begrudge them the pleasure. During one of his very first appearances for Wasps, the England forward Dean Richards smacked him in the face and he was told in no uncertain terms by a team-mate to punch him back - which he did. After a period of prayer. "Rugby is a game played with the heart and the head," he said proudly. "It is a game where you have to be prepared to suffer.”