A captain's unscripted ending

Robert Low at Twickenham sees a real rugby man get the sympathy vote
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THE SCENE had been set for a fortnight, the actors primed. Captain Carling would depart the stage in a carefully orchestrated blaze of glory.

The team he was leading for the 59th and last time allowed him to emerge from the tunnel on his own to a huge and touching ovation from the Twickenham crowd. Whatever his deficiencies, Will Carling has always been a real rugby man whose qualities are fully appreciated by the public. His response was a shy wave.

One sensed a deep well of sympathy for a man who in the past year has often appeared totally out of his depth away from the field, blundering from personal disaster to disaster. Sometimes it has seemed that he is only really at peace within the confines of the pitch. All these events were put into proper perspective by a minute's silence for the victims of Dunblane.

Perhaps all the hype about Carling's farewell served the Irish players better than the English, certainly while he was on the field. What better motivation could there be than to topple the archetypal Englishman from his perch on his big day?

England began in refreshingly open fashion after the early setbacks of Humphreys's dropped goal and Mason's penalty, and Carling was involved in everything, but as the half wore on, he was reduced to crash-ball tactics against a resolute Irish defence.

When the end came for Carling, it was a clump of green turf rather than a green jersey which felled him. In the 33rd minute, he suddenly pulled up lame and keeled over. When England's most successful captain finally left the field, his vehicle was no chariot but a stretcher, and no amount of sympathetic applause could compensate him or the crowd for the anti- climactic nature of his departure.

But there was a final twist when, without the skipper, England proceeded to score 19 points without reply and to everyone's surprise emerged with the Five Nations title.

At the end, the track-suited Carling limped up the steps to receive the Millennium Trophy. It is a particularly hideous piece of silverware in the shape of a Viking helmet, but not inappropriate in the circumstances. Perhaps they should now dispatch him out to sea in a blazing longboat.

"Winning the championship was a great way to finish," Carling said. "Our intention was to run and we did so from the off. The Irish were very committed and came in at 100 miles an hour from all directions, so we tightened up and came out OK. That's probably the end of the season for me."