Rugby Union: Same age, different futures, grand stage

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Both are outside centres born in 1965, but when they face each other in Cardiff today, Will Carling will be ending his international career while Allan Bateman's is just beginning. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
Two outside centres, born nine months and no more than 100 miles apart in 1965, are now, at long last, direct adversaries after plotting deeply contrasting routes along the highways and byways of international rugby. When Will Carling and Allan Bateman stare into the whites of each other's eyes across the Arms Park half-way line this afternoon, they will be only too aware of just how different they are.

For Carling, who feels instinctively that now is the time to bring down the curtain on a phenomenal decade in the public eye, today's Five Nations finale between Wales and England is a denouement in more senses than one; for Bateman, it is a new beginning, the delayed flowering of a union career interrupted by a not entirely fruitful sojourn in rugby league. For the barbered and Barboured Englishman, tired of the limelight's unforgiving glare, top-level sport has become a treadmill; for the low-slung and combative Welshman, it is a brave new world pregnant with possibilities.

Wild horses could not drag Carling anywhere near the plane that will take the Lions to South Africa in a couple of months' time - indeed, if England's former captain heads south of the equator this summer, it will be in search of the sort of sun-soaked peace and quiet seldom associated with the Springbok citadels of Newlands or King's Park. The opposite is true of Bateman, who is looking increasingly like the centre of Fran Cotton's dreams.

Compare comments from the two men this week and gauge the gulf in desire and enthusiasm. "I need time to think," Carling said. "There will be no definite decision on my international future until the summer, but it takes up more and more time and I'm not sure whether it's what I want any longer.

"I'm not saying my feeling for England rugby has greatly diminished but you change as a person as the years go by. Next October, the national team will effectively be cooped up in a hotel for a whole month in preparation for the pre-Christmas Tests. I don't want to close the door right now but..." and he shrugged his shoulders in a way that suggested he would rather eat uncooked offal from a dodgy abattoir than spend an entire autumn living on a diet of room service and squad training.

All of which is a foreign language to Bateman, every bit as reticent and withdrawn as his more illustrious peer but vibrantly alive to the challenges that lay before him. "A Lions trip would be the high point of my career and I'd love to get the chance now because the year 2000 seems an obvious time to call it a day. I've got another two years on my contract with Richmond and I'd like to extend it by another one, but there's no guarantee that I'll still be around when the Lions travel again.

"I'm hopeful, of course. Centre is a key position for the Lions because you can break a game from there and we'll need strength in depth. There are a lot of good players around in the position, real match-winners, so selection would be an achievement. I enjoy competition, though. South Africa would be a tough place to go for anyone who didn't."

Had Bateman - born in Maesteg and a Welsh Youth player in 1984 when Carling was making his early strides as captain of England Schools - not uprooted to play rugby league for Warrington in 1990 in a reported pounds 100,000 deal, he too might have seen and experienced enough by now. As it turned out, the move north and then on to Australia with Cronulla Sharks left him with a reservoir of unfulfilled union ambition and when Richmond, well- heeled and ambitious, offered him big money to recross the divide, he did not keep them waiting for a reply.

"Looking back, the move to Warrington was pretty daft in many ways, certainly very short-sighted. The money looked good up front but the deal wasn't all it had been cracked up to be, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the rugby side of things, league didn't do much for me from a financial point of view until I went to Australia. That's when things started happening.

"It was there that it began to dawn on me that I was becoming a more complete player. There was an obvious development in terms of physique and at the same time, little things in my game began to improve: ball- handling, the ability to spot a gap, defensive organisation.

"When Wales toured Australia last summer I heard that they were looking to talk with me about coming back but there was no contact. I flew over from Sydney to play league in the European Championship and about three weeks later, Richmond got in touch. It moved very quickly from there; the Barbarians picked me for their game against Australia - fantastic thrill, that, especially for someone who went north after winning just four caps, none of them against a major southern hemisphere nation - and when poor Gareth Thomas crocked himself before the Test with South Africa before Christmas, bingo! I was back."

And how. According to Ben Clarke, the England and Lions loose forward who captains Bateman at Richmond, there is no more cultured centre in British rugby. "I'm constantly surprised, taken aback sometimes, by the intelligence of his contribution," he said during this week's build-up to the Arms Park. "He's a very quiet type, but when he does talk he makes an enormous amount of sense. Every time I train or play with him he offers some new refinement and if you ask me, there's an awful lot more to come. I honestly think he's capable of anything."

Even Carling waxes lyrical about the striking success of his contemporary's autumnal renaissance. "Very good player, Bateman," he says. "He seems to me to be a good basic footballer, an all-rounder who has balance, the ability to read a game and is capable of reacting to any given situation. In a sense, he is more crucial than any other individual to what is a very dangerous Welsh back division."

It may well be, then, that Carling's last hurrah in what remains the most emotion-clogged Five Nations fixture of them all will coincide with a definitive statement of future intent from a rival who, in different circumstances, he might have confronted a dozen times in the last 10 years.

"Emotion? Oh, it will be emotional," he agrees. "Mind you, I don't suppose for a moment that too many Welshmen will break down in tears because it's my last game." And a smile flickers at the edges of those famously dark eyes, as though the very thought of thousands of weeping Arms Park supporters is enough to make life in the goldfish bowl worth living after all.

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