Rugby Union: Carling up for a third World Cup

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Will Carling yesterday held out the tantalising possibility that he might after all be willing to carry on as an England player - possibly even as England captain - all the way through to the 1999 World Cup.

This was a radical departure for Carling, who will win his 61st cap and lead England for the 54th time against the World Cup-winning South Africans at Twickenham tomorrow. He has always previously stated that he would not be around for the next tournament, hosted by Wales four years hence when he will be 33.

"I wouldn't rule it out but it's not something I've set myself as a goal because I've already played in two," he said. "I think physically I'm capable of doing it; whether I can mentally is another point because it gets harder and harder as you get older. Whether I will be willing to put in more and more training I don't know."

Carling's remarks at the team hotel in Richmond after England had completed yesterday's private training session at the Bank of England ground in Roehampton reflected the change that has occurred in the England captain's attitude to rugby during a traumatic period in his personal life.

He appears to have used rugby as therapy by committing himself to his the club game with Harlequins as never before and turning in some exceptionally strong performances. So much so that one questioner yesterday wondered if his "biceps, thighs and even chest" had grown bigger. "Actually I've lost half a stone," Carling retorted.

Whatever the reason, there is a new-found optimism about the captain's rugby. After this year's World Cup he fleetingly doubted whether he would play on at all but now he is not only contemplating the next tournament but also continuing captaincy beyond this season despite the fuss about his appointment for this season.

"Part of me thinks I might enjoy not having the responsibility but there's no doubt I love being captain and enjoy what goes with it," Carling said. "I haven't made up my mind and I don't think Jack has. At the moment I've no plans to stop, start or anything."

Carling subscribes, as he must, to the aforementioned Jack's view that now at last is the time for England to break the tactical shackles, though he seems to have no more idea than Jack Rowell whether it will actually happen under the restrictive conditions of such a big match against such powerful opposition.

"If we are honest, they have a formidable pack of forwards," he said. "We have some great runners and we need to play a fairly fast game without playing sevens. We have to.

"Having said that, they also have one of the best pressure defences in the world. I don't think we can take them on as maybe an England side of 1991 would have done."