Will Carling: 'Kicking is hard when you have Jonny's shadow hanging over you'

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The rugby union players of beleaguered England take on those of mighty Ireland in the Six Nations Championship next Sunday, perhaps wondering how those adjectives, beleaguered and mighty, came to be transposed. In the meantime, a chorus of disapproval has gathered volume regarding the selection policy of the England coach, Andy Robinson. The loudest voice belongs to Rob Andrew of Newcastle Falcons, aghast at the treatment of his teenage protégé Mathew Tait. But there is some background baritone from Andrew's erstwhile England captain Will Carling.

The rugby union players of beleaguered England take on those of mighty Ireland in the Six Nations Championship next Sunday, perhaps wondering how those adjectives, beleaguered and mighty, came to be transposed. In the meantime, a chorus of disapproval has gathered volume regarding the selection policy of the England coach, Andy Robinson. The loudest voice belongs to Rob Andrew of Newcastle Falcons, aghast at the treatment of his teenage protégé Mathew Tait. But there is some background baritone from Andrew's erstwhile England captain Will Carling.

"I can understand why Rob is less than impressed," he says. "When you give anyone their first cap you have to think pretty hard about it. When you give an 18-year-old his first cap you have to think even harder. But when Robinson picked him I thought, 'I admire that, it's courageous selection.'

"In his first game he was twice dumped on his arse by [Gavin] Henson, which was slightly naïve, but he didn't strike me as being out of his depth. So to drop him from the squad is naïve on Robinson's part, because he hasn't understood how it affects everyone on the squad, not just the boy himself."

To hear the views of England's most successful captain of the 20th century, three times a Grand Slam winner, I have come to his sumptuous home in Hampshire. Just up the road a sign says "Welcome to Jane Austen Country" and it occurs to me that there is pride, prejudice, sense, sensibility and indeed persuasion in the Carling story, although admittedly not much sign of Northanger Abbey.

In fixing up this interview, Carling has been charm itself, although he has asked me to sidestep his private life. He is not about to tell me whether or not he bedded Diana, Princess of Wales, and I am not about to ask. He leads me through a vast state-of-the-art kitchen, where a couple of housekeepers are bustling around and his son Jack is watching telly, then through a lavish dining room and into an acre or so of living room. Tan and taupe - the colours of Home Counties affluence - predominate. There is a huge suede coffee-table thing, on which huge books, including two on President John F Kennedy, are artfully scattered. To protect the suede I put my mug of coffee down on JFK's nose.

"There are guys who can handle international rugby," Carling continues, "and guys who can't. It's not just the pace and intensity of it, it's everything around it; the emotion, the scrutiny. Tait obviously has the ability physically, but has he got it mentally? Whatever, Robinson should have stuck with him. He gave Henry Paul 20 minutes against Australia, then took him off, then suddenly he's back in. Between the two of them, Paul and Tait, where's the line of thought?

"It's not easy to rebuild. Look at New Zealand when they lost [Sean] Fitzpatrick, [Frank] Bunce, Zinzan Brooke. I'm not sure if you'd say they have recovered yet. I think England will recover quicker than that, but to rebuild successfully you need coherent thought, a pattern of selection, a belief that these are your guys and you're going forward together."

The last time England lost the first two matches of what was then a Five Nations campaign, was in 1988. Coincidentally, they were the first two matches of Carling's international career; his debut was a 10-9 defeat by the French in Paris, followed by an embarrassment at Twickenham against Wales. "Yet [the then England manager] Cookey [Geoff Cooke] stuck with the same players, as Robinson should have done. So no, I'm not impressed. But I'm not despondent, either."

The spectre of played three Six Nations matches, lost three, does not trouble Carling. "You learn more when you lose," he says. "You try to learn from victories, but if we'd won the last few games everyone would think, 'That's it, England are back', overlooking the fact that there are obviously problems.

"Kicking is one of those problems. It's bloody hard when you have the shadow of Jonny Wilkinson hanging over you, and the longer he's out the more perfect he becomes. I feel very sorry for Charlie Hodgson in that sense. As an attacking No 10 he's a more natural player than Jonny, yet he seems to have become scared. He looks absolutely beaten and you can't play outside that. I wouldn't fancy playing outside him at the moment. Worse, I would quite fancy playing against him, and I'm sure the Irish will be thinking the same."

If Carling is aware of a discrepancy between his line that Robinson should show faith in his players and the implication that Hodgson should be put out of his misery, he gives no sign. And I'm too preoccupied with trying not to spill my coffee to point it out.

"Leadership is another problem," he adds. "From what I hear Jason [Robinson] is a bloody good captain, but all the great sides have four or five key guys who can make the right decisions under pressure. Look at the World Cup winning side. [Martin] Johnno [Johnson] was absolutely incredible but [Lawrence] Dallaglio, [Neil] Back, [Matt] Dawson, Wilkinson, could all run the game when required. Look at [the former Australia captain] John Eales and the calibre of players he had around him. For me it was Brian Moore, Dean Richards, Rob Andrew, Peter Winterbottom. Most of my captaincy was done off the pitch. Once you're on the pitch, it's chaos. I find it faintly amusing, this view that some people have of the captain, clicking his fingers and saying: 'Guys, let's try plan B' and everyone goes, 'Oh God, yes, plan B'. That's bollocks. The reality is that you need experience at 8, 9 and 10, and that's where England are rebuilding."

Of course, nobody becomes experienced without having been inexperienced, and Carling vividly recalls the debutant's fear which gripped him before running onto the Parc des Princes to confront the great Philippe Sella.

"Since I was a kid I had dreamt of playing for England. I was going to be the hero, score the try that saved the game. But when it becomes reality all those great ideas get scaled right down. Your thoughts become negative: I hope I don't drop ball, or miss the crucial tackle. I was absolutely petrified beforehand. But it helped that there was no expectation for England in those days. If we won, Twickenham would drink itself into oblivion. Now it's not enough even to win, they have to do something special."

Still, a win of any sort will probably suffice in Dublin. I ask Carling how he thinks Sunday's game will unfold.

"Well, I think it's a great shame [Julian] White and [Trevor] Woodman aren't fit, because the scrum is one area we could really attack them. In the line-out they've got the best two jumpers in Europe and their backs are terrific, so obviously it's going to be very hard, but there's no doubt that [Ronan] O'Gara can be put under physical pressure. England need to make sure he is brought into a few rucks and mauls early on, given a nice welcome. He's crucial to the game, and what we want is to keep him backing off and playing deeper and deeper. That's where centres become less effective."

As a none-too-shabby inside centre himself, Carling should know. He also knows all about the unique Dublin welcome. "As soon as you arrive there, there's Irishmen all around you saying [he adopts a passable Irish accent]: 'You're all so big, you're going to stuff us, go easy on us, won't you.' Then you get out there and they kick hell out of you. It's different in Scotland and Wales because there's no friendly welcome. You know exactly what to expect. But the Irish are smiling assassins."

It's a neat phrase, from a man whose articulate and affable company makes me wonder how he became Britain's number one rotter not so many years ago. Well, obviously I know how it happened. He left Ali Cockayne, Gary Lineker's fragrant sister-in-law, who had recently borne their child. And set up home with Lisa Cooke, the wife of his former team-mate David Cooke. A distraught Cockayne was photographed by The Sun, holding their son, Henry.

Throw into the mix the break-up of his first marriage amid innuendo-laden reports of his friendship with a vulnerable Diana and it's easy to see why Middle England was so affronted. These are all matters that I have undertaken not to discuss, but when we talk about Carling's corporate hospitality outfit, WCM, it seems reasonable to ask what effect being demonised by the tabloids had on his fledgling business. "Awful. And there was so much rubbish written. They said Ali found out from a press release, which was absolute rubbish; we'd spent two weeks discussing it. Maybe part of me deserved to be portrayed as the most evil man in the country, but ... I didn't want to go out, I was at rock bottom.

"Funnily enough, I had the papers on the phone yesterday, asking me to comment on a big rumour that one of the current England boys was going to be outed as gay. I said, 'Do you think I'd comment on anyone else after all I've been through?' "

Carling's reputation has pretty much recovered now. He and Lisa are married, and as well as lots of tan and taupe furnishings, they have two children to show for their relationship. All of which suggests that he didn't leave Cockayne lightly. Besides, he wasn't wholly unacquainted with controversy even before the love rat stuff. There was, after all, the old fart stuff.

The response of the Rugby Football Union to Carling's unguarded crack that the English rugby establishment comprised 57 old farts - made when in Ron Atkinson-style he thought that his microphone was switched off following a TV programme - is almost too depressing to recall. He was relieved of the captaincy, then, after being forced to issue not one, not two, but three grovelling apologies, grudgingly reinstated. He cheerfully recalls the whole sorry imbroglio - "I got sent old fart gin, old fart T-shirts, loads of old fart memorabilia" - and smiles when I suggest that, with his 40th birthday not far off, he might soon want to become one of the old farts himself.

"Well, there's plenty I would like to change. I remember saying to the RFU when the game went professional that they should sign up the top 30 players. They said, 'Oh, we don't want to do that.' But the southern hemisphere did it and they control how much rugby their top guys play, whereas ours play far, far too much, and 40 per cent of it is irrelevant.

"I would have a European super league with six English clubs, six French clubs, maybe three Irish clubs, and so on. The level of rugby would be immense, it would be financially viable, and it would reduce the number of games. Without being condescending it would be great for the Scots, too.

"There could be two Scottish teams in it, playing at a level to bring them back to a competitive edge. Unfortunately, the whole system has survived on resistance to change. To get in there and try to change things would take too much energy. The only direct involvement I want with rugby is maybe to coach an under-11s team."

Carling's legacy to the game, then, will be formed by his accomplishments as a player. Which were substantial, and included captaining England to the 1991 World Cup final, but not quite as substantial as he would have wished. "I would love to have lifted the World Cup," he says, with feeling. "I was actually quite scared before Johnno did it in 2003. I wondered whether I was going to look at him and think, 'You bastard, I wanted that to be me.' When he did lift it I was certainly very emotional. My lip started to go. But thankfully it was for the right reasons, which came as a great relief."

All Six Nations' matches are being televised live and exclusively by BBC Television