I had announced it was my last game for Wales and Rob Andrew had come out of retirement to play. Although there was a lot of speculation that it was Will's last game he wouldn't acknowledge that it was. Yet, I fancied that the atmosphere around that little threesome was just as emotional for him as it was for me and Rob.
We had a chat later about how the game had changed and, again, I sensed an air of finality but age wasn't pressing as hard on him as it was on me and he was probably finding it difficult to make the decision.
It was no surprise, therefore, when he announced his retirement from international rugby last week. It was harder for him because he is capable of challenging for his England shirt for at least another season but there's still a lot of excitement and glory he can gain with Harlequins.
Young rugby professionals could learn a lot from watching the climax of Carling's career. He is backing off from the big-time at the same moment that scores of younger players are rushing to devote their entire lives to playing. They are the new breed; the first to be able to play rugby as a full-time career.
There's nothing wrong with that ambition and a lot of veterans will look enviously at the chance they never had. But, in the end, will they do as well as Carling? There's a danger hidden in the new professionalism. Carling will retire to his successful management consultancy. What will the new pros retire to?
Brian Moore is another example. The former England hooker has played a big part in securing Richmond's promotion to the English First Division. But he can't go up with them. Richmond will now turn full-time, training every day, and Moore's job as a solicitor will not allow him to do that.
The point is that it is no longer possible for a player like Carling to build a business, or for Moore to become a solicitor, and for them to be top-grade players at the same time. There are still players combining rugby at the top with outside careers but the game's demands on them are becoming a problem. If they confine their rugby to club level it may still be possible but once they join an international squad they are locked into wall-to-wall rugby.
I'm glad to see that youngsters being recruited by the bigger clubs are being promised scholarships to pursue their education. But the older players are being asked to put all their eggs into one basket and they'll have no place to go when they retire. Soccer players may earn enough to last a lifetime but rugby men are never going to get that rich. The clubs and the unions ought to ensure that players are provided with some opportunities to prepare for the future.
Meanwhile, Carling leaves behind an international career that will be hard to equal. He was, and still is, a tremendous centre but it was his presence that did so much for English rugby. A former army officer, film- star looks, posh accent, self-assured in any company, even royalty (sorry, Will) ... he had all the ingredients necessary to be hated by the rest of the male population.
I played against him when he made his Twickenham debut for England in 1988 but I'd gone to rugby league before he reached his peak. He was no more popular there than he was among England's rivals. The pressure on him was enormous but he revelled in it. They say he would never have made it in league where they'd have been queueing up to hit him. Well, if I could survive that treatment he certainly could and I'm sure he would have been a big success.
What I admired most about him was that he was prepared to speak up for all players in those days just before professionalism. He was the last to need to be paid but his main concern was the game and his "old farts" comment cracked the foundations. From someone regarded as part of the establishment it was a brave comment and a far-reaching one.
I look forward to seeing him play in some of the great club games ahead and I will always remember how he and Rob softened the blow of the end of my international career. I couldn't have walked towards the exit in better company.Reuse content