RUGBY UNION: Carling perfects his sidestep

The sport's most hunted man is in vintage form, says James Rampton
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As Colin Herridge, the Rugby Football Union's media officer, gave the first of many press briefings about his friend and house-guest Will Carling behind the stand at The Stoop, a bemused-looking group of West Hartlepool players wandered past towards the changing-room to prepare for the match.

One turned to another with a wry smile and said: "They're not here to interview us." He was right. The story on Saturday was about much more than Harlequins' 34-18 win - as the presence of so many news reporters, who would not know a dummy scissors if it ran them over, proved.

The circus had begun more than three hours before kick-off as the press rat-pack - hardened from years of doorstepping Michael Barrymore and David Mellor - assembled in the car park to pounce on Carling's Range Rover.

It was as if Madonna was about to come to her first rugby match. The hacks reached for their notebooks and cameras as a chunky off-road vehicle pulled into the car park. But the well-built rugby player emerging from behind the wheel turned out to be Brian Moore. Carling, meanwhile, had driven his car in through the back gate right up to the changing-room door and disappeared into the bowels of the main stand before you could say "Scarlet Pimpernel".

The car-park steward, in a Harlequins cap, chuckled at the subterfuge. "The press was well gutted. That was a great dummy, that was." The pack then swarmed around the players' entrance to the pitch like so many angry hornets. Police formed a ring in front of the press before Carling - his face a mask of impassivity - jogged out to warm up.

"What are you expecting?" a reporter asked a policeman. "Not a lot," replied the officer, smiling. "Just a good game." He was not disappointed.

Carling had read the script and scored a try after 32 minutes, bursting through the tackle of Paul Hodder with a vigour that suggested that the West stand-off might have had a secret life as a tabloid reporter. As he trotted back to half-way, the Harlequins centre was accorded a standing ovation by the sympathetic crowd (which also flocked around him, back- slapping and hand-shaking, at the end).

For the rest of the game, Carling played with the same rejuvenated verve he has shown all season - making outside breaks and beautifully weighted passes as if he did not have a care in the world. Things may be ghastly off the pitch, but on it he looks supremely relaxed.

The impressive Chris Sheasby - a shame the England manager Jack Rowell was not there to witness his rampaging display - added a pushover try four minutes later. After half-time only a spectacular run-in from half- way by the promising Tim Stimpson halted Quins' progress.

Rob Kitchin, sniping, Simon Brown, bullocking, and Spencer Bromley, weaving, all touched down to keep the London club unbeaten and level on points with Bath at the top of the table.

Afterwards, however, there was only one topic of discussion. Barry Forster, West's director of rugby, admitted with a grin that "there were certain things that we were trying to remind Carling of during the game. You can't let things like that go by."

Keith Richardson, the Harlequins coach, had nothing but praise for the former army officer's composure under sustained press fire. "You'll not find a more determined person than Will Carling," Richardson said. "He's a role model for any younger man on how to concentrate on a game."

The only thing that baffled the coach on Saturday was the presence of three police riot vans. "I'm not sure why they were here," he said. "I never thought the press were that rough."

Harlequins: Tries Carling, Sheasby, Kitchin, Brown, Bromley; Conversions Pears 3; Drop Goal Pears. West Hartlepool: Tries Hodder, Stimpson; Conversion: Stimpson; Penalties: Stimpson, Parker.

Harlequins: J Staples; D O'Leary, W Carling, W Greenwood, S Bromley; D Pears, R Kitchin (capt); S Brown, S Mitchell, A Mullins, A Snow, P Thresher, M Russell, C Sheasby, R Jenkins.

West Hartlepool: T Stimpson; O Evans, J Williams, C Lee, A Parker; P Hodder, S Cook; P Lancaster (capt), T Herbert, M Shelley, C Murphy, K Westgarth, D Mitchell, R Wainwright, A Brown.

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).