Carling's final break

the captain who is to bow out after eight successful years in charge of England
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In the end Will Carling's departure came when he - and no one else - chose, with his weekend announcement that he would resign the England captaincy after this Saturday's Triple Crown match against Ireland. And though at 31 he fully intends to fight for a place as a humble lieutenant, that represents the final, perfectly ironic triumph of a remarkable career.

Yesterday Carling was paying liberal compliments to a restricted group of people, and these did not include the successive committees of the Rugby Football Union who have viewed him as an unholy mixture of renegade and alternative power source in a game they liked to think they ran.

The culmination of this uneasy relationship was the "old farts" affair of 10 months ago when Carling's televised remarks concerning the flatulent 57 caused him to be peremptorily sacked. He was ex-England captain for precisely two days before the RFU's humiliating climb down.

But Carling's brushes with authority went back a lot longer and there were plenty of people who wanted rid of him well before this crisis came. As long ago as 1990 he was investigated for - and cleared of - taking money for opening a sports centre, an accusation made in an anonymous letter to Twickenham that now seems risible with rugby union's embrace of professionalism.

Then, in January 1991, he led his team into a blanket silence after England had won in Wales for the first time in 28 years. He kept the job only after the favourable intervention of the then RFU president, Michael Pearey. Instead Geoff Cooke, the manager, and Roger Uttley, the coach, took the rap. In Cooke's case this was a selfless act appropriate to the symbiotic relationship he had developed with his captain.

Carling was moved to mentioned Cooke by name at least three times during yesterday's press conference at Twickenham, whereas Jack Rowell scarcely figured. It was instructive that at the same time Carling should so obviously have declined to volunteer an expression of even minimal credit to Cooke's successor as England manager.

Indeed while Carling was finally making up his mind last week he consulted a number of people who naturally included Cooke. But uncomfortably for Rowell, he learned of his captain's decision only when the team gathered on Saturday for a pre-Test training weekend. "It's a stunning piece of news to all of us," the manager said.

Carling's comments yesterday were as instructive for what they did not say as what they said, as has been the case ever since he began his uneasy, emphatically non-symbiotic relationship with Rowell two years ago. The one disservice Cooke ever did Carling was when he announced his own sudden resignation in 1994.

Still, this is the last thing that would now concern Carling. "For me, the high point is being around with great players like Winterbottom, Dooley, Teague, Richards, Guscott, Andrew," he eulogised. "It's been amazing to be a small part of that and to be around someone like Geoff Cooke. I have huge admiration for him."

This is less than surprising given that it was Cooke who took a punt on the 22-year-old Carling in 1988, a speculation on the youngest member of his team that accumulated handsomely for England. Cooke always said this was the single most important management decision he ever made but it is sometimes forgotten that if Nigel Melville had not been so grievously injured in the Ireland game of 1988 it might never have happened.

By the time Carling was appointed he was the fifth captain England had had in that calendar year and Cooke was so determined to impose stability that from the start he stated his intention to maintain his new man in place at least until the 1991 World Cup. With the exception of only two matches when he was injured, Carling has led England ever since.

This has amounted to 58 of his 65 Tests, the measure of his achievement being the simple statistic that under his eight-season tutelage England won 43, drew one and lost 14. They were World Cup finalists in 1991 and semi-finalists in '95 as well as doing the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1991, '92 (the first back-to-back Slams by any country since the 20s) and '95. Carling's teams lost only five of 31 Five Nations matches.

"All I've ever wanted, since I was six or seven, was to be in a successful England side and for England to be respected as a rugby country," he said yesterday. "It will be debated whether we've achieved that but I'd like to think we have gone some way towards it."

At least there is no urgency for Rowell in appointing his new captain, and with Ireland to be faced on Saturday the captaincy issue has to be the last thing on the mind of would-be successors. If the next Test were more imminent than November, Dean Richards would be an ideal stop-gap but it is reasonable to assume that whoever Rowell promotes will ideally stay in post to the 1999 World Cup.

Hence a reason for the timing of Carling's decision, though there is also an element of self-service as well. "I've always wanted to go out on my terms," he said. "England need to appoint a captain for the next World Cup and I won't definitely be around then so I'd like to think I've timed it right.

"Three years is a great period for someone to gain that experience and confidence and knowledge. But I'm still enjoying it and want to play on, without the pressures of captaincy. Part of stepping down as captain was to enable me to play on a little longer."

The succession probably rests between Philip de Glanville, Tim Rodber and Lawrence Dallaglio - though neither of the first two is in the team and there is no certainty that De Glanville will be able to displace Carling at centre next season. If Rowell was minded to do as Cooke did all those years ago he would settle on Dallaglio.

He will have an impossible act to follow. Appreciation of many aspects of Carling's capacity for captaincy remained - and remains - equivocal throughout his often controversial tenure and it is only when England have to get on without him that an informed judgement can be passed. "People are not really appreciated until they are no longer there," Geoff Cooke, his great mentor, said yesterday. "Will is going to be remembered as one of the all-time greats of English rugby."