Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship: Cornered Carling calls for clear heads: England try to ignore post-Cooke era

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The Independent Online
THE BOYS, so we are told, want to do it for Geoff when England play France at Parc des Princes this

afternoon. The fact is, though, that they need to do it for themselves as well because in a fortnight or so, when Geoff Cooke has retired as manager, none of their old certainties will survive.

Not even Will Carling, captain in six of Cooke's seven seasons, will be able to hang on to the comfort blanket his alter ego has for so long supplied. So when Carling insists that he has not given the post-Cooke captaincy so much as a thought he is surely being disingenuous.

'We have the game against France on our minds and no time to dwell on anything else,' Carling

insisted, as if nothing - not even this week's shattering news that Cooke, having had enough heat, was getting out of the kitchen - could possibly enter his head.

'I can't be sitting here before playing France wondering who is going to be the next manager of England; I can't afford to do that.' As it has been the topic of rugby conversation all week, this response is scarcely credible, for the uncomfortable possibility is that by the end of the month, maybe even after this very game if England crash as frequently happens to other visiting teams here, he may no longer be captain.

The ecstatic afterglow of the autumn defeat of New Zealand was dimmed by the last-kick win in Scotland and extinguished by the unthinkable home defeat by the Irish. But then the French have been going through something similar themselves after beating South Africa and Australia only to lose to Wales.

It is at times like this that the old cliches tend to be trotted out. Here is Carling: 'We've had two very hard lessons. These guys will respond to it very well. They have exposed parts of our game and made us look far from accomplished in certain areas, and we want to put that out of our system. There is a different atmosphere building up for this game.' Almost word for word, he said the same after Scotland and before Ireland, and look what happened then.

Still, the doubts are equally profound in the French camp, where Pierre Berbizier, the coach, has lost patience with the talk of money that pervades big rugby here. A bit like England, really. . . though the threat by Ian Beer, president of the Rugby Football Union, that England might consider breaking off relations with the Wallabies and Springboks over professionalism is so fatuous as to be utterly incredible.

As ever, no one has bothered to ask the players. In France, no one needs to because they are happy to harp and carp unsolicited. 'There is all this talk of money, of sponsors, of all sorts of things except the game,' Berbizier complained yesterday. 'I want people to stop putting into the heads of this generation that the virtues of work, rigour, discipline and organisation are not so good for them.'

A soupcon of French flair would not come amiss as well, mind you, but Berbizier has never been romantically inclined and was infuriated when his old comrade-in-arms, Lolo Rodriguez, criticised him for working the players too hard. 'The 'sacred monsters' have forgotten that they succeeded through hard work,' the coach retorted.

Berbizier is under enough pressure without Lolo, merci beaucoup. The return of Laurent Cabannes on the flank without a game since September may prove a coup because he is - or certainly was - a fantastic player. But right now it smacks of panic and makes the three matches David Pears played en route to the England team seem like an eternity.

Anyway, Berbizier felt compelled yesterday to issue a rallying call to the public to get behind his team - which only goes to show that even he cannot take for granted the fickle affections of the French.

'I would like it to be France rather than the French team who face England. I would like everyone to be at the Parc to give and not only to take,' he said. This is all very well but it is the players, not Berbizier, who have to keep their heads under provocation orchestrated by 'le pit-bull anglais', as Brian Moore was characterised in L'Equipe yesterday.

Even Olivier Roumat, the French captain, recognises this is asking a lot. 'I have to say I have never known so much pressure and responsibility before a match,' he said. Just possibly, with Cooke on his way out, Will Carling feels the same.