Carling endures an off-day

Geoffrey Nicholson describes the thrilling try which defined the fate of England
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IT WAS three minutes into the second half when, before you could say Joost van der Westhuizen, the six-foot South African scrum half had darted round the front of the line-out, evaded two tackles and begun moving like a tightrope runner up the touchline. Rory Underwood was coming across to topple him into touch, so Van der Westhuizen, without breaking stride, chipped the ball over the wing's outstretched arms, swept past him, gathered the ball and scored in the corner.

It wasn't South Africa's first try or their last, sandwiched between the two from Chester Williams - but it was the one which seemed to sum up England's hapless afternoon, and it defined their fate. The blind- side move is Van der Westhuizen's trademark, yet only 20 metres or so out from the England line they let him slip away from them and reacted too late. They had only themselves to blame.

Towards the finish Will Carling received six minutes' attention on the field before he was taken to the dressing room on a stretcher. Happily his condition has improved but he will be out of the game for three weeks after suffering concussion.

England manager Jack Rowell said: "Will's all right. He was knocked out rather than having his body damaged in any way."

Two hours after the match Carling was still groggy but able to sign autographs, and he said: "I will be fit to play against Western Samoa. I don't know how I received the injury, but I expect to have only the mandatory three weeks out after concussion. My neck is sore but it will be all right next month."

Ben Clarke was also taken to hospital afterwards, thought to be suffering from a fracture of his cheekbone. This means that England will have to reshuffle before they meet Western Samoa.

On the match, Rowell said: "We knew we had a mountain to climb. They were immeasurably strong. They had a big, powerful pack. We need to play more regularly to find out about the pace and power. I was pleased with the commitment. We are rebuilding. We rushed things and tried a bit too hard at times."

Twickenham had everything going for it yesterday. There was the bright sun in a practically windless pale blue sky. The grass, embossed by the mower to show off the lines, was in ideal condition. The pounds 66m alterations to the ground were now complete so that even ahead of its official opening, it held 75,000 people in spanking new conditions. All was right with the world - except, alas, the rugby.

The problem was that the game looked all the worse in these pristine surroundings. Twickenham, and the stately pleasure dome that the Welsh are planning at either a refurbished Arms Park or a green-field site at Bridgend, weren't planned for the new professionalism. But they have coincided with it and will have to accomodate it. And if the game can no longer count on old tribal loyalties it will find itself competing for an audience with much older established professional sports. That Twickenham has 75,000 seats doesn't mean that the public will automatically fill them - especially if the entertainment is as sparse as it was yesterday. Rugby football could still find itself with deserted Xanadus.

The fact is that the Springboks looked weary from midway through the game. Since the delirium of the World Cup, they have been through an exhausting winter. They deserve the rest of their spring to recover.

Yet even at their most jaded they were never put under serious pressure by England, whose handling was riddled with errors. They ignored overlaps, preferring to punch through the centre and win the ball back, by which time their advantage had been lost. The low point was when Carling and Underwood made such a pig's ear of inter-passing that Williams rudely interrupted them to score his second try.