RFU decision sabotages World Cup hopes

Steve Bale, Rugby Correspondent, says the Carling affair shows a deep divide in the game
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If those members of the Rugby Football Union committee who have busted Will Carling from captain to private had been trying deliberately to sabotage England's prospects in the imminent World Cup, they could scarcely have done it better.

Which is a neat little irony since Carling, admired as he may have been, had until now generated rather less than outright affection among his players during his seven years and 48 games as captain. If, say, injury had cost him his place in the England team it would have been profoundly unfortunate, a setback most certainly, but not a total calamity.

But because he was heard to call the men who make up the RFU committee "57 old farts'' at the end of last Thursday's Fair Game programme on Channel 4, half a dozen of the self-same old farts took this to be a vote of no confidence in themselves and have not only voted no confidence in Carling, but have provoked more or less open mutiny in the England squad.

These are uncharted waters, but what can be said with certainty is that England's World Cup ship is rudderless and sailing too close to the rocks for the comfort of Jack Rowell, the manager, who has been left in an impossible position. If it should go down, committee members might care to reflect on the incalculable harm they will have done to the promotion of the English game.

But this is half the problem. How many of the members of the RFU committee really do wish to promote the game? Because for every promotional coup, for every non-rugby person who develops an interest, for every pound of sponsors' money, the pressure to hurry the sport from the amateurism the committee espouses towards the professionalism the players want grows fiercer.

Looked at in this perverse way, an English win in the World Cup about to begin in South Africa would be the end of rugby as they have known it and so, far from from being a cause to celebrate, would be an adverse outcome to all their years of reflected glory while Carling's England have been achieving more success than any predecessors in 120 years.

Dennis Easby, the RFU president, insists the punishment was a specific response to a specific offence, almost a benevolent gesture to save Carling from himself. But this is not the captain's first run-in with authority: he has almost been sacked once before, in 1991 when he failed to discharge his responsibility to speak to the media after England had won in Wales for the first time in 23 years.

On the other hand, the England captain dutifully supplied the ammunition, even if he was more mischievous than malicious. There he was telling Fair Game that the RFU should treat the players as adults when he revealed just how puerile he could be with the crass remark that concluded the fateful programme.

Not half as crass as the RFU's response, though. From last Wednesday onwards, and even as late as Friday, Dudley Wood, the union's secretary, was sensibly playing the whole thing down and it was only when Easby decided to involve himself that the ghastly alternative was set in train.

Events seemed to develop an unstoppable momentum, beginning from the premise that something must be done - a simple reprimand, perhaps - only to career onwards through the meeting Easby had on Friday in the old-boy ambience of the East India Club in London with the past and future presidents, Ian Beer and Bill Bishop, and the treasurer and assistant treasurer, Peter Bromage and John Motum.

Carling's belated apology was in effect rejected. Some, but not many, other committee men were then contacted by telephone, the sacking becoming a reality without the vast majority of those to whom he had applied his epithet ever expressing a view.

Small wonder that some of the small pro-Carling element wonder at the dismissal's constitutionality. All of the above are members of the RFU executive committee, which will have to pick up the pieces when it meets this Friday. The full committee of 57 will not meet until July, before the union's annual meeting.

It is an extraordinary thing that the RFU should stand on its dignity over such a petty insult - or it would be if the RFU were not constituted as it is. The majority of the now-famous 57 have only a tangential interest in England's fortunes, their prime concern being the myriad lesser clubs and schools which together give the union a membership exceeding 2,000.

The agenda among this hoi polloi is inevitably different from that of the lite players and clubs, and it is logical to suggest that the relationship between some of those who represent some of the constituent bodies (mainly counties) on the RFU committee is different than that of an ordinary supporter only to the extent that they attend post-international banquets at the London Hilton in Park Lane.

That they are amateur, in a far truer sense than any England player, may salve their consciences, but it does not give them greater moral rectitude. Yet the tone of one of Wood's comments on Fair Game suggested for all the world that committee members - even shown as they were lording it in their black ties and dinner-jackets as he was speaking - were somehow worthier than England team members.

"I constantly marvel at the amount of time and work contributed by elected officials at club level and certainly at Rugby Union level," he said. "We often talk about pressure on players; the pressure on the team of those officials is enormous." But of a different order, one would have thought, from the pressure of an England training session, still less an England match.

Indeed, of the 46 listed in the RFU Handbook as representing constituent bodies, only four ever played for England. These include Peter Larter of the Royal Air Force, Derek Morgan of the Students' RU and Mark Bailey of Cambridge University.

Malcolm Phillips of Lancashire, a centre who won 25 caps from 1958-64, is the only international who represents a geographical area. Bailey, who at 34 is more of a young than old fart, is the only one of the four to have been in the England team since 1973, and the only one to have first-hand experience of the professional demands now routinely made on amateur players.

This disparity between two inimical groups, players and committee, has long been a source for conflict, and the Carling sacking is merely the most blatant expression of great antipathy. Player ill-feeling over the RFU's reluctant acquiescence in the England squad's off-the-field money- making ventures (in stark contrast to the Australian RFU's overt partnership with its players) has extended for most of Carling's term as captain.

If his sacking is confirmed, his term will have ended at the worst conceivable time and the RFU may not be able to find an alternative - neither Rob Andrew nor Tim Rodber nor Dean Richards nor Brian Moore, because they all simply refuse - to lead its team in the World Cup.

Far from being enhanced, its authority has been irredeemably diminished because it has made itself look as silly as the very remark that caused the fuss. What happens next is impossibly unpredictable, but it can safely be suggested that by pompous over-reaction the England committee may well have cost the England team their greatest triumph.

Rugby union, page 28