I am now making a plea I never thought I should find myself making: Carling should be confirmed as captain of England

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The Independent Online
Will Carling has never, I confess, been one of my favourite rugby persons. His comments I find only slightly less vapid than: "It was a game of two halves, wasn't it, Brian?" His business, I thought, breached the true meaning of the rules against professionalism long before they were finally jettisoned - and he was allowed to get away with it. Altogether, he was, I considered, both a contributor to and, at the same time, a product of the new, superficial, commercial brutalism of the 1980s.

He was also a product of Geoff Cooke. A very good centre indeed, he would almost certainly have got into the team without Cooke's support. But he would not have been made captain, certainly not at 22. It is not going too far to say that it was Cooke who created Carling as a commercial concern in whom, for a fee, businessmen anxious to improve their performance were prepared to repose their trust.

Carling has been England's most successful captain, certainly since the 1920s, perhaps of all time. In the six seasons so far of the present decade England have won the Grand Slam three times (once back-to-back) and the Five Nations Championship three times likewise.

It may sound ungenerous: but it is nevertheless true to say that England could have done better if Carling had taken different decisions on the field - or if it had been someone else in charge. He seemed incapable of varying a plan once it had been set. He did not appear to have full control of his team, particularly of Brian Moore, who often went off on frolics of his own.

There was a case for making Moore captain, with all the risks that entailed. Dean Richards would have gained the loyalty of the whole team and been a great favourite with the fans. But the strongest case was undoubtedly for Rob Andrew.

Six years ago Andrew captained the British Isles magnificently in Paris. There is no reason to doubt that he would not have done the same for England if he had been given the chance.

But tick-tock goes the clock. Andrew is off to Newcastle in a part-managerial capacity. His distinguished career with Wasps is drawing peacefully to its close. He remains in the England squad for the South African match on 18 November. So does Moore, though neither he nor Richards, still less Andrew, is now a realistic choice for the captaincy.

Carling similarly is in the squad. But, contrary to what he had suggested earlier, he has not been confirmed as England's captain.

I am now making a plea which I never thought I should find myself making: that now, or as soon as possible, Carling should be confirmed as captain of England for the South African match. The 1996 season can wait.

My reason for this appeal is, to begin with, compassion. Carling has had a terrible time in the last few weeks. You can say with some justice that the terrible time was largely of his own making and that, like Gary "That woman is trouble" Lineker, he should have given the Princess of Wales a wide berth.

But he did not. Maybe he was silly, but we all do silly things, especially where the opposite sex is concerned. What he and the Princess actually did, if anything, is none of our business.

Nor is it that of anyone else except Julia, Mrs Carling (for the Prince of Wales, the other spouse involved, has by now surely forfeited any legitimate interest in his wife's activities).

This is not to say that what a rugby captain does off the field has no relevance to his captaincy. A conviction for theft, fraud, GBH or whatever should undoubtedly disqualify someone from captaining either club or country. A mild flirtation with a Princess, on the other hand, should be a cause if anything for congratulation.

But it is not only compassion that is involved. The tabloid press must be shown that it cannot wholly ruin people's lives on a whim.

It has already brought to a conclusion the careers of numerous ministers and MPs. In the end, John Major always buckled under the pressure. Jack Rowell now has the chance to demonstrate that he is made of tougher stuff than the Prime Minister.