Rugby Union: Carling returns to Harlequins

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SPORT APPEARS to be littered with reincarnations. The latest was at The Stoop Memorial Ground yesterday when Harlequins unveiled their latest recruit - the former England captain, Will Carling, who has signed to play for them until the end of the season.

It only seems like 13 months ago that Carling was walking out of the ground and the game, when he was half-way through a reported pounds 130,000 contract. But since then, amid a welter of unwelcome publicity about his private life, it appears Carling began to suffer cold turkey for the liniment, sweat, and bonhomie of top club rugby.

"I've come down to watch Harlequins once or twice," said Carling, now 33, whose last match was in December 1997. "Then three or four weeks ago I went into the changing-room after a game and I just enjoyed the atmosphere. It was the first time I have missed that side of things.

"I feel there is a little bit of unfinished business for me. I'd like my time at Quins to end on a high note." As opposed to the unhappy departure last January when he fell out with the then director of rugby, Andy Keast, and turned his back on the club after 152 games.

Carling, who won 72 England caps in the centre for England, stressed there was no financial motivation behind his decision. "If I was coming back for that I would have taken one of the other offers I have had. Money is not the reason," he said. "About 10 days ago Quins' coach, Zinzan Brooke, who had been winding me up for a few months about playing again, came down with Bernie McCahill, his assistant, and John Gallagher, the manager, and we had a chat. They asked me if I was interested in re-signing. I was flattered to be asked by people of that calibre."

Carling went away to Japan on business, had his fitness tested and liked what he was told. He made up his mind, according to his agent, Chris Bromage, while he was on level seven of the Nintendo game Super Mario Land.

Now, 388 days after he left, Carling is back at the club, although his earnings are not expected to exceed pounds 5,000 per match and could be less. Gallagher said the rest of the playing staff were unanimous in welcoming Carling's return.

And, according to the manager, Carling has lost little of his fitness. "When you have spent the best part of 12 years at the top you don't lose that conditioning," said the former All Black. "I would say he is about 80 per cent fit right now." Carling claims he is 12 kilos lighter than when he last played for Quins.

Quins have an Allied Dunbar Premiership match at home to leaders Leicester on Saturday, but Gallagher was extremely cagey about whether he would be drafted into the side so soon.

"This isn't marketing hype," said Gallagher, "this is a rugby decision. If we have injuries then, as a member of the squad, he will go in. But we will not put him on the bench this weekend simply as a publicity stunt."