Rugby Union: From the ruins of his old life, Carling treads a difficult path

The last four months have not been kind to his reputation, the commodity on which his prosperity rests
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A SHINY mobile phone pressed to his ear, Will Carling locked the doors of the navy Jaguar XK8 before striding up the drive of the four- star hotel.

Not exactly sackcloth and ashes, then.

It was tempting to look for signs of contrition in the familiar stocky figure. This time last year Will Carling had settled into a comfortable existence as a retired sporting idol. You could see him on ITV, fronting the game's new era. His businesses were prospering. He was looking ahead to a pounds 1m testimonial game at Twickenham, an unprecedented salute. Beyond that lay other lucrative projects, including an autobiography and a lecture tour.

Twelve months later, the whole thing lies in ruins. His decision to leave the mother of his baby son and to move in with the wife of a former team- mate proved one of those incidents on which a life can pivot. Having feasted on his did-they-didn't-they relationship with Princess Di, the tabloids decided that his abandonment of Ali Cockayne, Gary Lineker's sister-in- law, represented something else altogether. Will Carling, in their view, had strayed permanently offside.

And he is paying the price, all right, in a manner the ancient Greeks would have recognised. As he sat in the bar at the Petersham Hotel in Richmond on Friday, old fellows in blazers and their wives glanced at him with restrained curiosity as they downed their pre-lunch gins. You could see them adjusting their instinctive recognition to take account of more recent factors. Younger people tend to be blunter. That morning a woman had said to me, with some asperity: "Tell him he's a prat."

Even at the height of his success, when he was leading England to three Grand Slams as captain, he was seen by some as a smug git. So a certain amount of sardonic amusement greeted the news last month of his decision to don the motley once more and return to Harlequins, a year after he had walked out of the club following a dispute with the coach, Andy Keast, and a mere four months after he published an autobiography that concluded: "I don't miss rugby and I don't regret the decision to quit."

When we met, last Friday, he had been due to travel with Quins to Gloucester, but had just declared himself unfit. A back twinge, he said, although generally speaking his fitness didn't seem to be a problem. "I've read certain reports about how you can't hope to be out for so long and come back and do it," he said. "But I was thinking the other day about how Jerry [Guscott] was out for a year when he had a groin injury. The thing is, when you come back you feel better than when you had to stop. You feel great. You've had a rest."

But presumably, during his hiatus, he had maintained a fitness regime to keep himself in trim. "No. No weight training, no nothing." He gave a laddish chuckle. "I haven't admitted that to anybody." Not even a few press-ups in the bathroom? "No. About six runs, that's all." Had he played any other sport? "No. But I've lost nearly two stone in the last year." How? Why? "Dunno. Certain amount of stress, possibly."

Yes indeed. The last four months have not been kind to his reputation, the commodity on which his prosperity rests. His book came out during the scandal, and sold poorly. The testimonial was cancelled, along with the lecture tour. His television contract was not renewed.

Yet the decision to return to playing is, he claims, motivated neither by the money (which is nothing like the annual 150K that Quins were paying him before he retired) nor by a need to restore his public image. The reasons, according to him, are both simpler and more profound.

"There's no doubt that it's comforting playing rugby," he said. "It's what I've done for years and years, and it's lovely to go back into a group of people, like other people in my life, who have no interest in certain areas. All that's irrelevant because they know me. I've gone back because I want to do it. I want to play well and leave a different memory at Harlequins."

The club's New Zealand management troika - John Gallagher, Zinzan Brooke and Bernie McCahill - had been asking him, he said, ever since they took over from the sacked Keast. "At the beginning, I just didn't feel the desire. I was being approached and offered God knows what from all sorts of clubs, in terms of money, and I said no to everyone." Hadn't he, as the papers alleged, initiated approaches to clubs in France and Wales? "No."

And then, two days before he was due to leave for Japan on business in mid-January, Gallagher made another call. He persuaded Carling to go and watch Quins play London Scottish the next day. "I went into the changing- room," Carling said, "to see Jason [Leonard]. It was the first time I'd been in there since I stopped. They have a ceremony now where when you've played a certain amount of games you get a blazer, and they said, `Come in, Will.' So I stayed around and then I went home and I said to a friend, `That's the first time I've thought, I miss this.' It wasn't the playing. It was the humour, the craic, it was all the boys' stuff."

In Japan, he made his decision. "I know certain people think it's money or PR. It's certainly not money and at the end of the day it's not PR, because there's no way you're going to go on the pitch in the pouring rain and get hit by people that size just for PR. I'm not into that."

Was it a form of rehabilitation? "Maybe for some other people. For me, no."

Thinking back to the woman who had called him a prat, I asked if he hadn't felt the blast of public disapproval.

"None whatsoever. Lots of blasts of public support and sympathy. With what I've read in certain papers, I'd have expected to be stoned in the street. It hasn't happened. Maybe because people realise... I hope they realise... that you don't do it on purpose. It's a bad enough time, and... well."

But surely the return offered him a chance to rebuild the only platform he ever had, and to make himself credible again, at least in business terms?

"There are certain things we're doing at the moment which are going well anyway. I'm going to be the ambassador for the Japanese sevens, for instance, which is going on in April. There are some other long-term projects to do with Japanese rugby. We're going to be doing hospitality around a number of sports events, starting with the World Cup. All in all, business is very good, very exciting."

In his view, the return to playing involves no risk. "Quins asked me back. I didn't go and say, `Please give me another chance.' That was flattering. The response I got from the players when I went back was very touching. If I can't be bothered to do the training and I let myself down, that's a risk. But I'm training hard and I have the desire to do it for three months. In that way I have no risk. In terms of what other people think, I've realised I have no control over that anyway."

His successor as England captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, had made encouraging noises about no door being closed. "I think he was just being polite. I have no aspiration for it. With Harlequins it's a matter of unfinished business, and I don't feel I have any unfinished business with England."

Inevitably, his reappearance has been greeted with cynicism by those who accused him of showing little interest in club rugby during his England days. "It's like anything in life. You have priorities. I had an interesting chat with Lawrence a few months ago. He said, `When I was young and you were England captain, I used to think you were a complete... whatever... because you hardly ever played for Harlequins. But after my first season I realised why. It's knackering.' It's impossible to tell someone what it's like to captain England, and how tiring it is. It's lovely, but it's huge. And it basically takes over your life. And although I came out and said that England was my priority, I think any rugby player would say that. They just don't say it because it doesn't look right. But I don't think many players would put their club before their country. Because when you're five or six years old, you dream of playing for England."

He can't see his return lasting beyond this season. He still holds trenchant views on rugby and its administrators - he would select Stransky for England ("You pick the best available, full stop") and he thinks a European version of the Super 12 offers the only prospect of a Northern Hemisphere nation ever winning the World Cup - but "business is where I want to go, in the long term".

He looked through the windows of the Petersham Hotel, set high on Richmond Hill, and across the Thames towards the dark grey drum of Twickenham. This is where England have gathered before home matches for the past 20 years. This was where Carling gave his team talk on his debut as captain, younger than any of his squad, staring into the hard, experienced eyes of men like Wade Dooley, Peter Winterbottom and Jeff Probyn.

"I always used to have the room two floors above here," he said. "Same room every time. In the days when I was first captain, you'd pull in here on a Wednesday evening. You'd spent Monday and Tuesday on your own, and all you could think about was everything that could go wrong. Then you'd get to the hotel and see guys like Wade and Winters and you'd think, `It's going to be all right.' So I loved getting here. You could switch off from the world. It was rugby, and that was it."

He paused. "Stupid little memories. On Fridays we'd have a run-out, and come back and they'd have lovely big thick white towels. You'd have a hot bath, wrap yourself up in about three of those towels, lie on the bed and sleep for a couple of hours. I used to love that. And that evening I used to stand on my balcony and look out and see Twickenham."

They must seem a long time ago, the days when he could raise his arms to salute Twickenham's adoring throng and then choose whether to celebrate by beating up a hotel bar with his mates from the SAS or by staring into the eyes of a willowy blonde over a candelit dinner.

He is, as he says, a man of contradictions. And as he grapples with fate, sometimes even the smuggest of gits, which he may or may not be, can be forgiven his moment of pathos.