Rugby Union: Carling retires - reluctantly and with a hint of rancour

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Will Carling yesterday hung up his boots, but instead of a hearty farewell, England's most successful rugby union captain and Harlequins stalwart left the playing field in less than happy circumstances. David Llewellyn reports.

Sadly in the end there was no fanfare. No party. No back slapping, beer-swilling farewell do in the club bar. Instead Will Carling's goodbye was tainted with a hint of bitterness. After 11 years of top-flight rugby played latterly against a soundtrack of "Sweet Chariot" there was a sour note to the announcement that he was retiring from the game he loves.

For a start those close to the the 32-year-old former England captain insist that yesterday's decision was not the one he had intended to make. He still wanted to carry on with Harlequins, but press and public reaction this last week had persuaded him that now was the right time to go.

And so for the man who led England on 59 occasions and played in a further 13 matches for his country, there was an undercurrent of rancour as he brought to a premature end a troubled season of ups and downs with Quins.

"I'm genuinely sorry the relationships had become strained of late," said Carling, who had been linked with a move to north London rivals Wasps only last weekend.

"Retirement from the game is a big wrench, but it's the right decision for me. I've spent the last week considering this decision. Although I've been flattered by the interest of other clubs, Quins is my club and I've always said I would end my playing days here."

There were rumours recently of a rift between Carling and Harlequins director of rugby, Andy Keast. The centre's frequent absences from training sessions had not helped to reduce any friction and a broken hand had precluded any activity over the last couple of weeks. The professional game is a hard one and no one has an automatic right to a first-team place anymore. The regime at Quins is simply no train, no play.

Even so, Keast said: "Will's class meant there was an extra element of competition for a centre place. His presence in the squad was why other people were playing so well, because they knew they had to do so to get in ahead of Will. I have the greatest respect for Will as a player, and although things have not worked out as we would have liked over the last few months, there's no doubt his departure will be a great loss to the squad."

The club added: "All of us at Harlequins wish Will every success with his business and television enterprises and hope he will continue to be a regular visitor to the Stoop.

"The club has already been approached by members regarding a suitable tribute to mark his requirement and the board are delighted to accord him a testimonial in recognition of his 10 years as a player for the club."

Carling, for all his controlled image, has never been far from controversy. His infamous "57 old farts" remark earned him the sack as England captain in 1995. He was reinstated two days later after apologising to every member of the committee. Even his appointment as captain in 1988 aroused comment and criticism, he was only 22 and the youngest skipper for half a century.

He played his first match for Quins against Metropolitan Police in February 1987, while he was still at Durham University. He scored 162 points in league matches for Quins, a total which includes 21 tries, six penalties and 27 conversions.

This season, however, Carling has made just five appearances in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, and one of those was as a replacement.

Carling is a proud man, with a proud record, and naturally the tributes flowed yesterday, just as there had been when he stepped down as England captain in 1996 having led them to 46 wins, then as an international in April player last year.

Peter Brook, the president of the Rugby Football Union, said: "His contribution to England as a player, and through his record number of appearances as captain, was immense."

Colin Herridge, the former RFU committee man and long time mentor of Carling, called him a "national treasure".

The former England coach, Jack Rowell, said: "Carling as a captain was unique and I don't think we will see the like of him again."

Geoff Cooke, who stunned the establishment by appointing Carling captain in November 1988 after the former Sedbergh pupil had played just seven Tests, said: "Making him captain was the best rugby selection I ever took." It is to be wondered whether Carling will be able to the same of yesterday's decision.

Rugby's first superstar, First section, page 19

a brief history of carling's career

1984: Captains England at 18-group level.

1988: Wins first full England cap against France in January. In November becomes youngest English captain in 57 years after seven Tests at 22. Is put in charge until 1991 World Cup.

1989: Forced to miss Lions tour to Australia with broken leg.

1990: England lose 13-7 to Scotland in Grand Slam decider at Murrayfield.

1991: Leads England to first Grand Slam for 11 years. England lose 12- 6 to Australia in World Cup final at Twickenham.

1992: Awarded OBE. Captains England to second successive Grand Slam.

1993: Makes Lions Test debut against New Zealand but is dropped for second Test.

1994: Breaks world record for Test captaincy. Wins 50th cap for England.

1995: Captains England to another Grand Slam. Calls RFU committee "57 old farts" in Channel 4 programme and is sacked but is reinstated two days later. England finish fourth in World Cup in South Africa.

1996: Leads England to Triple Crown. Stands down as captain having led them to 46 wins in a world record 59 matches.

1997: Wins 72nd cap for England. In April, announces international retirement.

9 January, 1998: Retires from rugby.