It is a truism that great outside-halves are born, not made. What they have traditionally possessed has been a certain arrogance, the will and the ability to control events. Barry John had these qualities in abundance. Mike Gibson was less commanding but equally in control. He became a centre partly to accommodate John at outside-half with the 1971 Lions. There are, indeed, numerous cases of outside-halves who have become centres; fewer centres who have turned themselves into outside-halves.
The most famous illustration of a transplant that failed to take was provided by Bleddyn Williams in 1947. For months it had been confidently asserted in Wales that the great Cardiff centre's "real" position was at outside-half. He was duly played there in Wales' first full post-war international against England, but failed to make much impact on a game which England narrowly won through a drop goal by his opposite number, "Nim" Hall. Afterwards, Williams reverted to his normal position.
Carling is seven years older than Williams was on that occasion. No one, as far as I know, claimed during Carling's previous career that he was really an outside-half. The late Clem Thomas did once say to me that his best position would be full-back, but that is slightly different. Today, Carling asserts - what no one had suspected before - that he always wanted to be an outside-half.
Now that Carling's ambition has been belatedly realised, it is not absurd in execution. Among my colleagues I am perhaps in a minority. In the professional game, outside-halves will have to go the way centres have already gone. They will have to be heavier and stronger.
A few years ago a centre such as Lawrence Smith of Saracens was considered a virtual freak because he weighed 15 stones. Today, centres of more than that weight are 10 a penny in the First and Second Divisions. At just over 14 stones, Carling is suited to survival in these new, rougher times.
He has played quite well for Harlequins too - as an outside-half, that is, rather than as a place-kicker. The Quins would not have been the commanding force they are if he had been incompetent. His line-kicking is prodigious, as it always was. His passing is good. He can make the odd half-break. All he lacks is a certain authority, an arrogance if you like.
This is odd when you come to think about it. For that last quality was what Carling was always accused of possessing in over-generous measure. Yet, watching the Quins, you get the impression that events are not being controlled by Carling but by Gary Connolly, who plays at outside-centre.
When against Neath last Saturday Connolly went off injured to be replaced by the outside-half Paul Challinor, Carling reverted to the centre, where he appeared more at ease with himself.
Jack Rowell has said he has decided the English captaincy but is not telling anyone. This is a typical Rowell tease. Can it be, however, that the mystery man is not Lawrence Dallaglio, as everyone has assumed, but Phil de Glanville? This would certainly make sense of Carling's move. The English midfield would then consist of Carling, de Glanville and Jeremy Guscott.
With Mike Catt retaining his place at full-back, this would - in the absence of both Jonathan Callard and Paul Grayson - leave England without a recognised place-kicker. Is this, I wonder, the reason why, late in life, Carling has decided to seek his fortune through the boot? Perhaps there is a simpler explanation, to do with club rather than with country.
The best kicker in the First Division, the wing Michael Corcoran, whom Quins enticed from London Irish, is injured. Even so, it must be doubtful whether he could command a regular place in the Quins three-quarter line. Likewise, Challinor, a better goal-kicker than he is an outside-half, is denied a place with the stars. So the duty falls on Carling.
That is the simpler explanation. It may be that Rowell has something altogether more adventurous up his sleeve. I still think it would be madness to embark on the Five Nations Championship without a proper place-kicker - which Carling is not.Reuse content