Carling conquers them all at the Stoop

Stephen Evans sees England's centre of attention turn the game for Harlequins
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The Independent Online
THE Princess of Wales was not at the Stoop yesterday to watch Will Carling trot out in the Harlequins' colours. Nor, more importantly, was Jack Rowell, the England coach and the man upon whom England now awaits for his decision on the national side's captaincy.

It is a pity because both would have witnessed a classic, canny Carling performance in Harlequins' 34-18 victory over West Hartlepool. After jinking through a press scrum that might have been fiercer than any pack of forwards could have offered, their would-be England captain showed exactly why his cool head remains an asset. It was his usual display of long spells of masterful inactivity combined with the short, devastating flash of productive activity that turned the game.

For the first half-hour, he did nothing except position himself in exactly the right place for the break when it came. He then found himself in space 25 metres out but with a man to beat. He showed in a split-second just how deceptively hard he is to tackle when Paul Hodder, the West outside-half, knocked him down, or thought he did, only for Carling to somehow retain his balance and trot over to score. Last season he often seemed in a dream on club pitches but wide awake on the international field. This year, it seems, he is determined to give full effort wherever he plays.

After the game yesterday, he said through a friend that the attention on his private life "had not dimmed his eagerness to captain England. He wants to be considered and the only way to influence the decision is by playing very well on the field."

Carling's attitude was praised lavishly by the club's coach, Keith Richardson: "Will is a very tough character. I didn't find it necessary to sit down and talk to him about his personal life. It's not my business. Certainly he is not the type to drop out of a rugby match. He's the role model for any player. He performed well today, but he has played a lot better. In recent matches, he's looked the best player you'll ever see."

Richardson's feeling seemed to be echoed by the crowd which cheered every time he did anything with the ball. The West coach, Barry Foster, said after the game that his players were determined to wind the England centre up. He didn't specify exactly how, simply saying: "There were certain things we tried to remind him about."

After he scored, Quins jolted into life: the No 8 Chris Sheasby darted after a ball that squirted out of the scrum behind the West line to drop on it and perhaps make a point about his exclusion from the England squad; the equally faithful Rob Kitchin darted from scrum-half through a gap near another West scrum; the prop Simon Brown wrestled a ball out of a maul to score; and finally Spencer Bromley wove up his wing to put the game way beyond West. A drop-goal and three conversions from the outside-half David Pears completed the unbeatable total.

The team from Teesside had actually not done too badly for much of the game. They scored the opening try when Hodder crossed after the ball had been moved swiftly across the field, and they also scored the best try when their impressive full-back Tim Stimpson raced over half the field.

For Quins, four victories in four games must banish last season's prospect of lower-grade rugby as no more than a distant bad dream. Will Carling's personal nightmare continues, however. He asked yesterday for some space in which to think and sort it all out.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, W Carling, W Greenwood, S Bromley, D Pears, R Kitchin (capt), S Brown, S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher, M Russell, R Jenkins, C Sheasby.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson; O Evans, J Williams, C Lee, A Parker, P Hodder, S Cooke, P Lancaster (capt), T Herbert, M Shelley, C Murphy, K Westgarth, D Mitchell, A Brown, R Wainwright

Referee: E Morrison (Gloucester).