Rugby Union: Carling kept off the ball

Stan Hey watches the former England captain drop anchor in the studio

NORMALLY he would have been smearing his face with Vaseline, head- butting the dressing-room door, and leading his team in a pre-match chorus of "Haul Him Down, You Zulu Warrior!" But for Will Carling, the former England rugby captain, yesterday marked his well-greased launch off the slipway and out into the media ocean as ITV Sports new presenter for the England v Australia match at Twickenham. But would he sink or swim?

Swapping the controlled violence of the rugby pitch for the neon-lit clamminess of a television studio is probably the biggest challenge of Carling's charmed life so far, for while the game itself seeks to make order out of a natural chaos, television coverage is all about control and the appearance of perfection. But leaving aside his obvious qualifications, Carling looked to have several other things going for him. He has been well used to the demanding glare of cameras, and the experience of having a producer shouting abuse and instructions into an earpiece would have been amply covered by his army training. Why, he even has a conveniently large dimple in his chin in which to nuzzle a microphone.

As he was groomed by the same agency that successfully guided the media careers of Gary Lineker, Alan Hansen and David Gower, Carling was plainly in good hands, leaving the speculation to fall upon his precise role. Would he be a roving reporter in a duffle coat, seeking instant responses from the lads in the buff after the match? Would he be hosting a party in the North Car Park, complete with Quorn casserole and claret? Or would he be wearing a badged-blazer of the old fart variety, harrumphing at the youngsters who had succeeded him in the England team?

Disappointingly, Carling's role was revealed to be merely that of studiobound anchor, sitting in front of a Clive James- style wall of television screens which suggested that he and his two experts, Bob Dwyer and Damien Hopley, were in the front window of a Rumbelows store. Clad in a sober Armani number, he welcomed those viewers who hadn't already seen the match live on Sky and reeled off a handful of routine questions. "Had the new team had enough time to gel?" he wondered, bringing instant attention to his new close cropped hairstyle rather than the matter in hand.

Once the match began Carling was left in mute isolation when his comments would surely have been more illuminating than Steve "Keep It On The Island" Smith. And although the garrulous referee was miked up, there was no live link back to Carling for his thoughts on England's willing but disorganised first half.

The half-time interval was largely eaten up by adverts but just when you wanted Carling's insight about what the captain might be saying to his lads, he was obliged to ask the questions rather than answer them. "Bit of a patchy first half, obviously due to the conditions?" Carling ventured, backing away from any criticism of the new England set-up. And then with time for only two more questions Carling launched into a summary of the First Division football results, which was a bit like getting Michael Fish to comment on Iraq and the United Nations during a weather forecast.Rather like some of the other England debutants, Carling looked like the right man operating in the wrong position.

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