Is time running out for Will Carling?

Rugby Union: The England captain has enjoyed a brilliant career. But, writes Steve Bale, the minuses are beginning to add up...
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A rugby birthday party took place amid the old-world opulence of the East India Club in London last weekend, where the topic of conversation was Will Carling as much as Mickey Steele-Bodger's three score years and ten.

Many happy returns to the president of the Barbarians, former president and trustee of the Rugby Football Union, England flanker of late-Forties vintage ... oh, and chairman of the East India Club as well. If ever there was a gathering - of rugby's great and good - to confirm in Carling's mind his publicly stated view of English committee men in particular, and by extension committee men in general, this was it.

But the feeling is evidently mutual and so the England captain had better beware, because even the term "England captain" can for the moment be used only in the sense that Carling led England the last time they played. Having thought he had been reappointed, in fact he is still waiting for Jack Rowell and the RFU executive to make up their mind.

Or so it seems. Carling's relationship with officialdom during the long years of his captaincy has seldom been cordial, since well before the "old farts" affair in May when he was sacked and then reinstated. He was once dropped by London for failing to attend training. There were disparaging remarks about Paul Gascoigne which caused a stir, an RFU investigation into a payment he had supposedly received for a charity appearance, the sullen silence which followed the 1991 win in Wales.

There have been plenty of other examples, but even so Carling deserves our sympathy. You can understand how, his rugby adolescence having effectively been taken from him when Geoff Cooke made him England captain at the age of 22, he would become heartily fed up at forever having to accompany his elders at the top table at post-match dinners, especially when most England players do not wish to attend them in the first place.

Poor fellow - 48 times he has sat alongside his and/or the opposition's president, the sort of worthy individuals with whom his every action indicates he has little sympathy and certainly no empathy. How uncomfortable, then, that as England captain he is part of the very establishment he affects to disdain.

But now that the goalposts have moved with the opening of rugby union to professionalism, Carling has to watch his step, as well as his sidestep. He may not, courtesy of his antagonists at the RFU, be paid for appearing for Harlequins in tomorrow's important First Division derby against Wasps, but the fact that England players will receive at least pounds 40,000 for this season's work forces him - or should do - to play the diplomat.

Which is what makes the kerfuffle over the captaincy so puzzling. On the one hand, it is impossible to imagine Carling, even at his most flippant, claiming he had been invited to continue as captain if he had not genuinely understood this to be the case. And the fact that it took the RFU more than a fortnight to indicate it was not is odd, if not downright suspicious.

At the same time, things have been so delicate between Carling and the union, and the stakes are now so much higher than they were, that it was incumbent on the immediate past captain to be completely satisfied that he would also be the immediate future captain before he said so.

Very odd. There was no question that this was what Carling was saying on 25 August, but 16 days later, when with a little help from friends he put together a damage-limitation statement, he purported to have known all along that the appointment had official channels still to go through.

Has he, one wonders, finally lost the plot, since by his own admission there are RFU members past and present - a goodly gathering of whom were at the East India Club for the Bodger birthday bash - who have been looking for his head? They did think they had him in May, but such was the embarrassment they had to grant him a reprieve.

More to the point now is whether Carling has again imperilled his international career by again speaking out of turn, although the question of whether Rowell, the manager/coach, makes a generational change when selecting his England squad towards the end of this month will be influenced by more pertinent questions than either Carling's apparently loose tongue or the long-term uneasiness of his dealings with the RFU.

The World Cup captain, seven years in the job, is not the only senior England player with cause for concern that Rowell may follow the example previously set by Laurie Mains with the All Blacks and use the whole of the period between World Cups to produce a team for the next one.

Hence the speculation that the time may be right for, say, Philip de Glanville to be thrust into the captaincy, a change that could have a secondary implication for Carling because De Glanville is, like him, a centre. Hence, too, the suggestion that now may be the hour for a radical clear-out of all those who may have deferred retirement in the hope of belatedly profiting from the game they used to play for love.

These are, therefore, worrying days for some. Dean Richards is taking an 18-month sabbatical from the Leicestershire Constabulary, but how would he manage if Rowell were to decide, with 1999 in mind, that the need for a swifter back row precludes further selection of the former forward talisman?

This is no longer a question of the lost dignity that goes with being dropped. For a full-time rugby player, such as Richards temporarily is, this is suddenly a livelihood, and on that basis he dare not lose his England place - not when the RFU has specifically precluded Leicester from paying him anything for his club rugby this season.

Carling has his own successful career, but even as Insights gives captains of industry an insight into leadership, he may have reason to reflect that sooner or later he will have to provide those corporate clients with a rather different, and perhaps less marketable, insight: into how he ceased to be England captain.