Faced with a revolt by the entire national squad and the refusal of leading players to succeed Carling as an alternative captain, the president of the RFU last night began to extricate himself from his earlier insistence that Carling's dismissal was non-negotiable.
Dennis Easby, the retired Reading solicitor who instigated the action after the captain had described the RFU committee as "57 old farts" on a television programme, said last night: "I spoke to Will on the telephone following a discussion with his agent, Jon Holmes, in which Mr Holmes said Will might have been prepared to withdraw his comments. In the light of what Will said to me on the phone, I am meeting him tomorrow to discuss the situation. The outcome depends on what he has to say to me. I am not saying that there will be a reinstatement, but yes, in certain circumstances, he may be forgiven."
Mr Holmes had suggested the offending words had been said in private and added to last Thursday's Fair Game on Channel 4 without Carling's knowledge or consent.
Mr Easby had been unprepared for the infuriated response of the England players but it is still a remarkable change of mind. Shortly before speaking to Mr Holmes, he had said: "I accept that I am probably the most unpopular man in British sport right now but the decision has been made, I stand by it, and there is no chance whatsoever that it might be reversed."
An alternative captain would probably not have been found among the other 25 members of the World Cup squad. Rob Andrew and Dean Richards, two prime contenders, said yesterday they would not accept the captaincy and last night the squad issued a statement expressing total support for Carling. "All the players stand fully behind Will as captain of the England team," it said. "We hope this matter can be resolved speedily in order that we may concentrate on preparing for the World Cup without any further disruption." If the RFU does not back down, England could even end up going to the World Cup - where they will be among the favourites - with no formally appointed captain but with Carling continuing unofficially in a role he has occupied since 1988.
Richards said: "We are all in a state of shock at the over-the-top punishment dished out to Will. All teams want their best captain to lead them on to the pitch and in England's case that is Will Carling." "All I can do is wait to see how things develop," Carling said last night.