Rugby Union: Carling a victim of modern puritans

Jonathan Davies suggests that the demands of the new age forced out a great player
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WILL CARLING spent the last week publicly dithering over whether to retire from rugby and I don't blame him at all for hesitating over what is likely to be one of the hardest decisions he has made in his life.

It must help that he leaves behind a memory of a great career. I believe he has been the most influential person ever in English rugby. His record speaks for himself but even then he didn't have the accolades he deserved. Not only was he technically good, he was very strong and deceptively quick. A lot of people seem to have got the wrong idea about him. He is a genuine guy with a great sense of humour and I have always found him to be great company.

He should be respected for that and for coming to this decsion in the way he did. I seriously considered packing it in several times over the two or three years before I eventually called it a day last summer. I think the general rule is - if you are indecisive, don't do it. When the time comes, you will see it so clearly that all doubts leave your mind. Obviously Will had reached that point. There's no point regretting quitting two months later and trying to get back into the game.

I wouldn't compare his circumstances to mine but there are similarities, particularly in the pressure of outside commitments. The game is making so many unnecessary demands on players that is forces you into a choice. I knew I'd made the right one and I suspect Will is just as certain. I've never regretted it and the time I would have devoted to rugby has been spent with the kids and it has been good for all of us. The uncertain thing is how much you miss playing. I don't know how Will will fare in this respect but I haven't suffered much.

I'm not saying that I'll never step on a rugby pitch again but in the six months or so since I retired, I've played in only one over-35s rugby match and one charity soccer game. I've kept myself fit, however, and play five-a-side football every Thursday with the BBC Wales boys.

If there was a chance of a game in the new year, and I was covered by insurance, I wouldn't mind having a go even if it was only for curiosity about how I'd perform. It wasn't any lack of faith in my ability to carry on that persuaded me to give up. I am certain that I could have been Cardiff's first choice outside-half this season. This applies even more to Carling. He is a year or two younger than me and has at least two seasons of top- grade rugby left in him. But it is not the playing that is the problem. It is the training, and the commitment a player has to make to the team ethic, that is the trouble.

In the days before professionalism, Carling was the most successful of all the players who combined a busy and prosperous career with rugby at the highest level. It was possible then to fit your training into your work pattern and, with the right self-discipline, be as fit and as enthusiastic as anyone.

Both in union and league, I always had a job outside rugby and when I trained I did it with great pleasure and satisfaction. But professionalism has brought a new structure. It is now more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to combine outside interests with the demands of club and country. A player is not allowed to train alone. The new breed of directors of rugby, coaches and fitness coaches are very hands-on and they want the entire squad together as often as possible.

It doesn't work, particularly for the older player. I'm all for the team unit but not at the expense of the individual. A good coach understands what each player needs - and they don't need a collective battering in session after session. Training has become a drudgery these days. I can see it in many players. True, they are professional now and have to put up with a tough regime. But don't tell me that it is doing them or the game any good.

I've never discussed it with Will, but I suspect that it is this new blanket commitment that has forced him to get out. He has a very good business and he is also trying to make it in television which, I know, is not an easy task. And he is now a family man as well. There is only so much he can concentrate on and he has to give his priority to his family and his future.

There are many players who have reached his age who must be wondering how long they can continue to maintain the pace while trying to develop an outside life. Variety was once the spice of the rugby player's life. He worked hard, trained hard and played hard. But there was always time to rest and even to have a drink. But modern rugby is demanding a whole new approach that, I'm sure, is not producing the right results. It can't be right if it drives a player of Carling's calibre away. If I was boss of Harlequins, I would have tried to accommodate his needs in order to keep him.

And, if I ever get to be a director of rugby at a club, and one day I might, I hope I remember the lessons that the old game can teach the new.