If Carling reads between the lines of what Rowell has been saying from the South Africa game onwards, he must be a worried man

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This is the best week of the rugby year - the few days leading up to the Five Nations. After all, it is not often that grown men in pubs and clubs can get away with a breathless discussion about the shape of Paul Grayson's thighs, is it?

Along with the new stand-off's upper legs (are they chunky enough for the demands of international rugby?), we have the questions of Matthew Dawson's wrists (strong enough for a quicker service than Kyran Bracken?) and Rory Underwood's heart (is it still in the game?)

But this year, instead of wondering only which players will go through the routine of slaughtering the rest of Europe, the England supporter has a couple of extra problems to chew over - he (or she) is in a state of utter confusion about his team, and he is not used to it.

It seems such a long time since he has felt like this (actually it is only about eight years) that it is raising the ghosts of the bad old days - the ones when David Duckham would wait a whole season for a single pass, and when no Englishman could look a Welshman calmly in the eye.

Here we are, five days from going to the awesome Parc des Princes to play a French side who have just stood toe-to-toe with the All Blacks and we have a new back row, two virtual novices at half-back, another at hooker, the best scrummager playing out of position and total mystery about what England are going to do with the ball - at least we do know that the Martins Bayfield and Johnson will win it. It is not, you may be sure, the preparation which has served so well in Paris in recent years.

There are two questions this raises - has Jack Rowell gone completely potty? And, despite those years of unprecedented glory, is Will Carling the right man to take and execute tactical decisions on the field?

Rowell's defence is relatively straightforward. He says that he inherited a settled, if slightly ageing, England side less than two years before a World Cup, made the pragmatic decision to keep it together for the World Cup campaign, and as a result was not able to effect the changes he wanted at the pace he wanted - he has had to do it all at once. Which is perfect common sense, and would be fine if it were the whole story.

It is, however, absolutely no justification for saying one day Mike Catt was the stand-off he wanted to structure England's game (pre South Africa) and the next saying he had been completely wrong and that Grayson was the answer. And it is no justification for saying that England needed a genuine open-side in Andy Robinson one day (pre South Africa), and going back on that with a new-boy in the position in Lawrence Dallaglio the next. All that shilly-shallying does is betray an uncertainty of judgement in the first place.

That uncertainty has, naturally, wormed its way on to the pitch where England appeared hesitant, inept and directionless in their autumn games. Their ability to run the ball from the wrong places into the wrong places, particularly against Western Samoa, was truly shocking and the captain has to take some responsibility.

If Carling has been happy with the way the midfield (his area of operation and expertise, remember) has been continually clogged up with back-row forwards slowing the ball down, then he does not have the necessary vision for the job. If he has not been, and either did not or could not prevent it, then he is not carrying the necessary clout. The same applies to the pace with which the ball is recycled, and the obsession with taking it into tackles rather than keeping it alive.

Poor Carling, he must have hoped that the dredging of his relationships through public scrutiny had just about come to an end. But my guess is that if England again look anaemic on Saturday he will have to go through it all once more as his relationship both with Rowell and with his players will become one of the themes of the season.

If Carling reads between the lines of what Rowell has been saying from the South Africa game onwards, he must be a worried man. All that talk of players' responsibilities, the difference between what is happening in training and in a match, about who should be running the game on the pitch - it is hardly a vote of confidence in the captain, is it?

It is not as if there is no alternative, either in position or character. Phil de Glanville plays the sort of instinctive rugby England should aspire to day-in, day-out alongside Jeremy Guscott, and, with John Hall, has been instrumental in persuading Bath not just to adopt, but actively to embrace it. The contrast is not a comforting one, even for England's most successful captain of all time.

Alan Watkins is on holiday