Carling takes his ovation lying down

The England captain's reign came to an end, ahead of schedule, as he left Twickenham on a stretcher. David Llewellyn reports
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The captain's log ends abruptly. Will Carling's final entry was his less-than-glorious exit. After 32 minutes 29 seconds of enterprise from him, Carling suffered a cruel twist of fate, catching his right foot in a divot on his favourite stage when he was trying to cover a kick deep into England territory by Simon Geoghegan. Two minutes 46 seconds later, Carling had left the field on a stretcher to a standing ovation, the ligaments on the outside of his right ankle torn and the rest of his season in tatters.

"That was not the way I'd have chosen to go out," Carling said afterwards with a rueful grin. "It was embarrassing. That is the end of my season." It is the third time this season he has left HQ on a stretcher. The first occasion was back in November after he hurt his neck against South Africa, then last month he took a knock on a knee against Wales, but Carling bears the ground no grudge. "I love Twickenham. It's been a great place for me."

In fact there was an element of symmetry to Carling's 59th match in charge. He was wrong-footed even before the start, trotting out of the tunnel and on to the turf unaware that the rest of the England team had hung back to leave their captain centre stage, alone with his public for this one final time as leader.

The roar of appreciation was palpable. Carling's tight little wave was testimony to his emotional state. "Going on like that was amazing," Carling said. "I didn't expect it. I thought we'd all go on together."

And for the next 30-odd minutes they were together, with Carling a veritable live wire in attack and defence.

From the kick-off it became apparent that he was relieved to be about to shed the burden of captaincy, there was a renewed eagerness in his approach. With all the problems of his private life, Carling has a right to regard rugby as a form of therapy, something he can throw himself into with impunity, and he did.

After 30 seconds, he popped up in the scrum-half position at a maul, took the ball and lifted the pressure with a fine kick to touch. And when he was not running at the Irish midfield, he was setting up the other backs.

If the half-dozen or so sharp breaks he made came to naught, it was still uplifting for the rest of the side and the crowd. His strength was obvious, he was explosive in the tackle, bursting through the first one or two on numerous occasions before making the ball available for his support players. Then came that final, bizarre moment.

It hardly qualified as a battle wound, coming, as it did, off the ball and with not an opponent in range. His studs caught on the fickle Twickenham turf. Carling hopped a dance of agony before falling to the ground clutching his right ankle. For long moments while he was being treated, the stadium was hushed; the 75,000 crowd eventually rose sadly to their feet to applaud their fallen champion as he was carried off. It was an eloquent tribute.

Carling's final success was to lead England unexpectedly to this year's Five Nations' Championship. The trophy had spent the afternoon in Cardiff but the defeat of France and England's victory meant a hasty removal from the principality to the glitter of London where Carling, on crutches, was able to receive it. A fitting end to his eight-year reign in which he has led England to victory on 44 occasions.

The Rugby Football Union president, Bill Bishop, a fan of Carling's, but all the same one of the 57 "old farts" of last spring, said: "On my behalf, on behalf of the RFU, on behalf of the whole of England, thank you very much."