The 30-year-old Harlequins centre, who has captained England in 58 of his 65 internationals, has decided that this season's Five Nations' Championship will be his last as a leader, though he insisted last night that he had every intention of carrying on at the highest level as a player.
Carling led England to victory a record 43 times, including Grand Slams in 1991, 1992 and 1995, as well as steering England to the 1991 World Cup final, which resulted in a narrow defeat by Australia.
Carling was first capped by England more than eight years ago while he was still in the army, and the England team manager of the time, Geoff Cooke, soon recognised his leadership qualities, appointing him to the captaincy while he was still the youngest member of the team for only his eighth international, the famous 28-19 victory over Australia at Twickenham in November 1988.
That result triggered an unprecedented revival in England's rugby fortunes, which for so long through the Seventies and Eighties had been depressed. The team that Carling and Cooke developed went on to become the outstanding force in European rugby.
Bill Bishop, president of the Rugby Football Union, last night recognised that achievement and paid tribute to Carling's services as skipper: "He was an inspirational choice as captain by Geoff Cooke in 1988 and his record speaks for itself."
However, Carling's career has had controversy, most notably in the past 12 months. The first was when he referred to the Rugby Football Union committee as "old farts" during a television interview and was sacked as captain. He was reinstated within within two days as a result of player power. Last autumn, publicity about his friendship with the Princess of Wales coincided with the break-up of his brief marriage to Julia Smith, who was in PR and is now a television presenter.
Ironically, Carling, who has scored 11 tries in his international career, has been playing some of the finest rugby of his career this season, and he acknowledged last night that the game had helped him overcome other problems in his life. "Rugby has been a great help in the last year," he said. "I have been able to forget other problems for a time. Now I want to get on with the next phase of my life and not being captain might help.
"My decision has nothing to do with my personal life," he continued. "I have managed to keep rugby and my personal life separate, otherwise I would have been unable to carry on."
If any personal problems are not to be blamed for his decision, there will inevitably be speculation that his relationship with the current England manager, Jack Rowell, which is not said to be overbrimming with cordiality, is a contributory factor. Certainly, the partnership he formed with Cooke, who was replaced by Rowell in 1994, will have coincided with the happiest phase of his playing career.
The first pinnacle of Carling's playing life came when he found himself leading an outstanding England team on to the field at Murrayfield for the Grand Slam decider against Scotland which resulted in a shattering defeat, which was both unexpected and demoralising.
However this chastening experience also had the effect of hardening the resolve of both Carling and his troops, resulting in successive Grand Slams over the next two seasons. A number of the leading players of that era, such as lock forward Paul Ackford and Wade Dooley and flankers Mike Teague, Mickey Skinner and Peter Winterbottom, then retired and Carling found his team in transition over the next couple of seasons. After a spell in the doldrums, Carling's captaincy enjoyed a second wind which reached fruition with last year's Grand Slam.
The anti-climax which began with England's overwhelming semi-final defeat by New Zealand during last summer's World Cup in South Africa began a downturn in the team's fortunes, which has led to increased public clamour for a new regime.
Because of the closeness which Carling has always enjoyed with his squad of players, last night's news will not have come as a surprise to his team-mates, and already speculation is rife as to which of them will succeed him.
Of those who are currently automatic selections, it would seem that Lawrence Dallaglio might emerge as the strongest long-term contender. Rowell would be unlikely to opt for one of Carling's immediate contemporaries as a replacement, and of the younger established players only Dallaglio, the captain of Wasps, appears to have the credentials for the job.
The rugby world will mourn the passing of a great captain, but it may be that Carling jumped before he was pushed.
The Carling years
1965 Born in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, son of Army brigadier.
1984 Leaves Sedbergh School; goes to Durham University. Captains England at 18-group level.
1987 Debut for England B in 22-9 win over France B
1988 Graduates from Durham University, where he had been on an Army scholaership, with psychology degree. Buys his way out of Army, joins Mobil. Wins full cap in January in 10-9 defeat by France. In November, becomes youngest English captain in 57 years in 28-19 win over Australia
1990 Leaves Mobil, forms Inspirational Horizons (name later changed to Insight), a company giving leadership and motivational advice. Rejects pounds 400,000 offer to turn professional in rugby league with Warrington
1991 Involved in row with RFU when he refused to give after-match interviews following England's 25-6 win over Wales, their first in Cardiff since 1963. Leads England to first Grand Slam for 11 years. Skippers England to World Cup final defeat against Australia
1992 Awarded OBE. Captains England to second successive Grand Slam
1993 Makes Lions debut in first Test against New Zealand, but is dropped for second Test
1994 Reappointed England captain by Jack Rowell. Breaks world record for Test captaincy. Marries Julia Smith
1995 Captains England to third Grand Slam. Calls RFU committee "57 old farts" in Channel 4 programme; is sacked, then reinstated after apologising. Separates from wifeReuse content