RUGBY UNION: Carling to miss Italy

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reports from Durban

Will Carling will be absent for only the second time in the seven years since he was first appointed England captain when his team try to bring some belated conviction to their World Cup campaign against Italy at King's Park on Wednesday.

The severe bruising to his left ankle which provoked Carling's retirement towards the end of England's fortuitous 24-18 defeat of Argentina has succeeded where his flatulent foes on the Rugby Football Union ultimately failed by depriving him of the captaincy.

Only for now, though. Yesterday he insisted he would be fit for the third Group B match against the dangerous Western Samoans here next Sunday but admitted that the full extent of the injury, which had been caused by an Argentine when he was pinned on the wrong side of a ruck early in the second half, would not be known until the swelling went down.

Carling's participation against Samoa is thus by no means as certain as he would have us believe, though he was walking more freely last night than 24 hours earlier when he was using a crutch. His confidence for Sunday, he said, was "because we've got a very good doctor here" which is generously complimentary to Dr Terry Crystal, who is a Leeds GP, but scarcely hard evidence.

He also has a bruised right thigh but, contrary to reports, was not concussed and says he is not in peril of having his participation in the tournament ended rather than merely interrupted. Rob Andrew led England the last time Carling missed a match: the 1989 visit to Romania that launched Jeremy Guscott into international rugby.

England's dismal display in general and Carling's injury in particular have given the management pause for greater thought about the team to play Italy than they might have anticipated. The original plan was apparently to select 19 of the squad of 26 in one of the first two games and then think about the others in the third if things had gone well.

So far they have not, the optimism generated by winning the Five Nations' Championship and doing the Grand Slam during the domestic season having been sharply diminished by the poverty-stricken performance against the Pumas. England are not too concerned by the Italian match but the start made by Samoa in trouncing Italy, far more impressive than England's, indicates they can upset Carling's team as much as Argentina did.

Carling said yesterday that he probably would not have faced the Italians even if he had been fit, and there is lingering doubt too over whether Dean Richards will be ready. The hamstring injury which put him out of the first match is still causing concern even though he has not attempted to train fully with the squad for eight days.

Given the lack of focus and direction against the Pumas, Richards has suddenly assumed still greater importance to England's World Cup aspirations. The common denominator in all their most recent failures - South Africa and Ireland in 1994, Wales and Ireland in '93 - was his absence and England have won every one of his last 15 Tests since losing the opening World Cup match of 1991 to New Zealand.

"Dean is a hugely influential figure but I wouldn't put the problems all down to that," Carling said. "Yes he is a focal-point and steadying influence but we need to achieve these things when he is not around as well."

After Argentina, selection of the England team for Wednesday, to be named today, will have been a more complicated task than Jack Rowell, the manager, can ever have contemplated. Philip de Glanville for Carling is the only obvious change and the management dare not weaken the side too much lest Italy pick themselves up and confirm their self-appraisal as the new force in world rugby.

The English players had a change of scene by training in a gymnasium up the coast yesterday, Carling accompanying them but confining himself to swimming. The only consolation he could derive from England's World Cup opening was the conventional one that winning even though playing badly was the mark of champions.