England draw veil over Carling valedictory

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Rugby Union

STEVE BALE

Will Carling's farewell as England captain is, so we were told yesterday, the last thing on his players' minds as they prepare to challenge for the Triple Crown against Ireland at Twickenham tomorrow. Evidently, they want to do it for themselves rather than Will.

This is what these days is called being focused and Carling has been around long enough - eight seasons in the team, seven as captain - to know that if you enter a Five Nations match thinking of the extraneous you will surely lose.

The Irish showed as much in 1993, when English minds were on Lions selection instead of the job in hand in Dublin. So any sentimentality, as Carling was reminded yesterday by his senior lieutenant Dean Richards, will be deferred until after the match.

"Everyone has acknowledged the fact that it's Will's last game as captain, but foremost in our minds is this game and we want the game over and done with," Richards said, with Carling sitting alongside him at the England hotel in Richmond. "Will has stressed to us it's the game that counts, and not Will."

Quite so; the best send-off Carling could have after extending his world record to 59 Tests as captain is yet another victory, though as it happens the Irish have been the only Five Nations visitors to have won at Twickenham in all his leadership years. That was just two years ago.

Even so, there is a palpable air of poignancy about this week, not least for those of us who have had to follow Carling's rugby fortunes. Considering his private life has returned him to the wrong end of newspapers this very week, he appears astoundingly relaxed.

"There's no doubt I'll be sad but somehow I don't really want to think about it until afterwards, because there's a game to win and it's a team game, so it's not about me," he said. "Afterwards I expect I'll be very emotional, rightly or wrongly, because it's been an amazing part of my life for eight years.

"I don't see it as a personal thing. I see it as a chance for England to do themselves justice at Twickenham. I'd like us to expand a bit and produce a great performance to finish off. The players have a Triple Crown to go for and an outside chance of the championship and they won't be thinking about anything else."

On the practical point of whether England could actually take their outside chance (which assumes France beat Wales), in fact Carling is not convinced that the points deficit could be made up. "It's not something on my mind. For a start, it underestimates the Irish massively.

"If things go incredibly well, fine, but I doubt that's a realistic target to set out with, and anyway it's a huge insult to the team we're playing against. All you can do is concentrate on the processes that enable you to score points. As soon as you become obsessed with the points themselves, you forget how to do it."

All of which makes another assumption, of an English victory. You could certainly be excused for doing so if you listened too intently to Pat Whelan, the Ireland manager, whose message before his team left Dublin last night - for the Chelsea Harbour Hilton, no less - was designedly bleak.

"All the advantages lie with England," he said. "They are meeting us with the psychological boost of a good win over Scotland behind them and they have an impressive line-up of world-class players.

"In addition, they are playing in front of their home crowd and they will be playing for the Triple Crown and possibly for the championship title as well. Ireland will go into this match totally as the underdogs." Which suits them just perfectly.

n Clive Woodward, the London Irish coach who made his reputation as a Leicester and England centre, and the Bath and recent England flanker Andy Robinson have been appointed as the new coaching partnership in charge of the England Under-21 team, who will continue to be managed by the former England prop Jeff Probyn.

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