Carling takes step to England No 10 shirt

Northampton 15 Harlequins 20
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In the chummy days of amateurism, Will Carling's switch from centre to outside-half would have had an air of a comic caper. But the only comic reference came from the Harlequins director of coaching, Dick Best, who likened Carling's performance to a cartoon-strip hero. Carling had treatment for a nasty eye injury - suffered accidentally - and on his return to the field his first act was to kick a penalty. Then he scored a try.

That prompted Best to remark: "He was very nervous in the first 20 minutes of the game and made a few mistakes, then he got the knock, came back and kicked the penalty and scored a try. It was Roy of the Rovers stuff."

Carling's eye was closing up and blackening when he emerged from the changing-rooms. "My vision is still blurred," he said. "It was good to kick that penalty straight after coming back on, but I couldn't see what I was doing. I didn't know if the ball had gone over."

Despite the injury to his left eye, suffered when he ran into his England colleague Tim Rodber in the 25th minute, Carling is not blind to the problems he is going to encounter in his new position. "I haven't played at fly- half for 15 years," said Carling, who has won 66 caps at centre for England. "There's a long way to go. I didn't expect to be able to do everything first time out."

By the end of the match on Saturday he had settled down with the tigerish Huw Harries at scrum-half, and he certainly tested the Northampton defences. His performance has given Carling confidence since he intimated that the England No 10 shirt was not beyond him.

"I'm up for anything. I think if I did get the chance to play five or six games at fly-half [for Harlequins], knowing the pace of international rugby the step up would not be too much of a problem. Thinking as fly- half rather than a centre is the thing, and that will take a few games. But it is not as different as people make out."

Carling was up against the present England outside-half Paul Grayson, who had the edge in the early exchanges - one electric break leading to Jonathan Bell's try in the sixth minute. Both men missed goal kicks and touch from time to time. Carling, though, was unable to match the occasional delicate chips from Grayson that had the Harlequin defence fishing frantically behind them for the ball.

But any danger which presented itself in front of them saw a superlative Quins defence putting in some big hits around the fringes and in midfield. If Gary Connolly and fellow rugby league recruit Robbie Paul occasionally transgressed with high tackles, then it will only be a matter of time before they react automatically, and legally, in the heat of battle.

There is no doubting their ability, and Best is giving them a month to settle in. By then, Paul could well have moved in from the wing, where he spent a frustrating 80 minutes at Franklins Gardens. "I'll play anywhere the boss picks me," said the New Zealander, who was making his debut, "but I would like to get closer, anywhere near the middle. Hey, front- row me if I put on a bit of weight over the next two months, shave my head, get a couple of scars...."

Paul, who plays scrum-half for his league team the Bradford Bulls, presents Best with yet another outside-half option in addition to Carling and the in-form but injured Paul Challinor. Best will want Paul to adjust gradually. Paul admitted afterwards: "I did find it strange. It was like standing in another world, on another planet." Which is where Quins find themselves today, undefeated and on top of their world.

Northampton: Tries Bell, Beal; Conversion Grayson; Penalty Grayson. Harlequins: Tries Staples, Carling, Harries; Conversion Carling; Penalty Carling.

Northampton: I Hunter; N Beal, G Townsend, J Bell (M Allen, 42-49, 58), H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson; M Volland, A Clarke, M Lewis, J Phillips, S Foale, D Mackinnon, B Pountney, T Rodber (capt).

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, G Connolly, P Mensah, R Paul; W Carling (N Walshe, 25-33), H Harries; J Leonard, K Wood, L Benezech, G D Llewellyn, G O Llewellyn, R Jenkins (I Pickup, 65), L Cabannes, B Davison.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).