Rugby Union: All eyes focus on prodigal Carling

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Harlequins 9

Leicester 34

IT IS not often it can be said that one part is greater than the whole, but given the media interest in the second coming of Will Carling at the Stoop Memorial Ground yesterday, Harlequins' Allied Dunbar Premiership One match against leaders Leicester was reduced to little more than a sideshow.

By the time Carling trotted on to replace centre Peter Mensah, wearing the No 18 shirt, the match was well and truly over. There is a limit to how much anyone can achieve in eight minutes 26 seconds, which was all the time that Carling was allowed in his 153rd appearance in Harlequin colours.

The television cameras and paparazzi were on the ground early along with a few supporters. Never have so many lenses ignored so much action. The crocodiles of camera-wielding figures were prepared to snap at everything to do with the former England captain. After recording his arrival and following him during the warm-up, they were then trained faithfully on the bench, a blue-painted corrugated affair, focusing on Carling's every twitch, fidget and gesture until he went on.

The pre-match warm-up saw Carling swerve gracefully around the waiting lenses and make his way on to the pitch where he was reunited with Quins' other comeback man David Pears. He stretched, then jogged gently up and down, looking perfectly relaxed. The tensest people on the ground were the massed ranks of stewards putting their bodies in the way of autograph hunters and the curious.

He lasted barely quarter of an hour before ducking back inside to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, emerging again 10 minutes later with different footwear, to take part in a few threequarter moves.

The presence of Carling, 33, and Pears, 31, which attracted 6,212 to the ground, prompted one Harlequin member to quip: "I've come along to see the club's youth policy in action." Generally, though, the reception for the Quins prodigal, who last played in the famous shirt 13 months ago, was sympathetic. When his name was announced among the replacements prior to the kick-off there was a loud cheer from those who had managed to tear themselves away from the bars.

Then it was down to the business in hand. The first half was largely Harlequins, then they conceded the softest of tries after half an hour, the Canadian wing Dave Lougheed powering through Jamie Williams as if the Quins' full-back was not there before shipping the ball to blindside flanker Lewis Moody.

Joel Stransky's subsequent conversion and penalty nine minutes later put the Tigers in charge, but Schuster landed an injury-time goal himself to keep his side in touch at the turnaround.

But it was as close as they got. Neil Back's try from close range, his 13th of the season in all games, followed by Leon Lloyd's two, the first on the hour and the second five minutes from time, ensured that by the time Carling made his belated appearance, after 35 minutes and 38 seconds of the second half, it was too late for any heroics.

Indeed there was to be no fairy-tale return for Carling. Shortly after his arrival Tigers went further ahead when the No 8 Martin Corry thundered some 40 yards upfield before setting up Stransky for a simple try under the posts.

Carling did manage to get a touch on the ball and also managed something which a leaky defence had not done too often, which was to put in a tackle on a Tiger, and he was also frequently up in support in his eight minutes or so back in action, but he just did not see enough ball to be able to change the course of the match.

Harlequins: J Williams; D O'Leary, P Mensah (W Carling, 76), J Schuster, D Luger; D Pears, H Harries (N Walshe, 63); J Leonard (A Yates, 13-21), T Murphy (capt; C Ridgway, 76), G Halpin (A Yates, 73), G Llewellyn, G Morgan, R Jenkins, C Sheasby (S White-Cooper, 23; B Davison, 49), A Leach.

Leicester: T Stimpson; L Lloyd (M Horak, 76), C Joiner, P Howard (J Stuart, 76), D Lougheed; J Stransky, A Healey; G Rowntree (D Jelley, 70), R Cockerill (D West, 70), D Garforth, M Johnson (capt), F van Heerden (N Fletcher, 40), L Moody (W Johnson, 70), M Corry, N Back.

Referee: C Rees (London).