'If the game is run properly as a professional game, you don't need 57 old farts running rugby'

Stan Hey at Twickenham canvasses opinion on Carling's exit; The words that brought down the captain of England
Click to follow
SAY what you like about the Rugby Football Union - well, actually, you can't - but they know how to spoil a good party. The terse 63-word statement they issued yesterday morning stripping Will Carling of the England captaincy cast a giant shadow across the sunny, festive occasion which yesterday's Pilkington Cup final was meant to be.

Fans arriving at the ground, having run the gauntlet of ticket touts and scarf salesmen, found their views being sought by journalists and camera crews as though a national disaster had occurred. In many ways, this wasn't too far from the truth, as the majority reacted with both anger and dismay to the dismantling of this icon.

Indeed, as the news was spread around the stands by the incomers there was an audible groan, which was soon followed by a defiant chant of "Carling, Carling!" among all sections of the fans.

"I think it's a very poor decision," said John Bale, an otherwise cheerful Bath supporter up for the day from Frome in Somerset. "Will Carling has proved himself a great England captain and now just because he's spoken his mind they go and do this to him. I think it shows very clouded judgement on the part of the RFU. Anyway, why do we need 57 of them to run a bloody rugby team?" he asked, echoing Carling's fateful words.

The notion that the punishment was out of proportion to the perceived "crime" was also a view of a group of match-day stewards in the dark recesses of the West Stand.

"They should have swallowed their pride and dealt with it all after the World Cup," said one who, in the prevailing circumstances, understandably wanted to remain anonymous. "I think Carling was wrong to say what he did, but he did apologise, so they could have dealt with it later rather than disrupt the team's enthusiasm."

When they were shown the type-written statement, there were sharp intakes of breath at the judgement that "it would be inappropriate for Carling ... to represent England and indeed English sport."

"They've gone completely over the top with that," they all agreed and looked around to check no one was listening. "There's been a buzz around the tunnel that the England players just won't accept this decision. The committee could have a revolt on its hands."

The possibility of mutiny was reflected by several players from the St Albans team who had contested the Pilkington Shield before the senior final. Tim Andrews, their captain, offered instant support for Carling. "The decision just shows that what Will said about them was true. Every player has a right to speak their mind."

"It's diabolical," said Dan Batchelor, the St Albans prop, reacting to the news. Only Wayne Pearson, their New Zealand flanker, offered the RFU ironic support. "As a Kiwi, I think it's a great boost to our hopes having dissension in the England ranks." "It's a complete step backwards," countered another St Albans player.

Despite the distraction of a pulsating performance by Bath, fans in general felt that the decision on Carling had taken the edge off the day. "It'll be remembered for all the wrong reasons now," said one Wasps fan as he filed away from the ground. The memories may not stop there. By choosing to discipline Carling so viciously for what he claimed in his apology was meant to be an off-camera remark, the RFU have displayed not only sense of humour failure, but also bad timing.

At the end of the game, most of the England players in the two sides had pulled up the drawbridge to avert further trouble. "I'll talk about the game, but nothing else," Rob Andrew said firmly. Meanwhile, Victor Ubogu and Ben Clarke sat in conference with their ghost writers to offer cautious opinions. The general view seemed to be that the England players will respond as a team to this defenestration of their cherished captain. "Watch this space," said Jeremy Guscott.