Rugby Union: When Carling was a darling

The Anniversary: Ten years ago, Geoff Cooke launched a new era for English rugby union
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The Independent Online
IF EVER there was a sea change in the fortunes of English rugby, then it occurred on 5 November 1988. After two and a half decades of mediocrity, the national team had once again failed to live up to their individual talents on a disappointing tour of Australia the previous summer.

Geoff Cooke, who had just completed his first season as the manager, had seen signs of a revival in the final game of the 1988 Five Nations' Championship when England thrashed Ireland 35-3 at Twickenham, only to be brought firmly back to earth with two Test defeats Down Under.

During his brief spell at the helm, Cooke had already seen off three captains - Mike Harrison, Nigel Melville and John Orwin - and another was needed to take charge against the touring Australians. It was at this point that he made what is now regarded as one of the more momentous decisions in the sport's history, promoting his 22-year-old bullock of a centre, Will Carling, to the captaincy, despite the fact that he was by quite some way the youngest member of the side.

At the time, Carling was a young Army officer with leadership qualities beyond his years, but his elevation nevertheless seemed little more than a desperate gamble. It is to Cooke's credit that, 10 years later, he does not attempt to gloat about his inspired recipe for success, but insists instead the decision was entirely logical, if unconventional.

"When we got back from Australia, we knew we had to get some stability into the organisation and we needed to find a captain who could hold his place in the side," Cooke said. "Carling was a young lad with enormous talent and inner steel. He was a winner and I felt he had leadership potential - he demanded high standards of himself and everyone else around him."

To be fair, the standards displayed by the players invited by Cooke to line up alongside Carling had risen dramatically during the early months of the new season with London, the North and South-west all inflicting defeats on the tourists. But these results were put down to ring-rustiness, especially as the Australians appeared to step up a gear during their 25-18 victory over the Midlands at Leicester the Saturday before the international.

When Cooke unveiled his preferred XV the following morning, it contained three new caps - Paul Ackford, Dewi Morris and Andrew Harriman - while several other selections, including the Bath back-row pair Dave Egerton and Andy Robinson, were also extremely callow in international terms.

Ultimately, more of Cooke's hunches came up trumps than not. Carling, needless to say, had a blinder. Typically, though, he was unable to finish the match because of concussion suffered while putting Simon Halliday through for England's final, victory-clinching try.

Ackford, a debutant nearly nine months past his 30th birthday, was a revelation, nobly assisting his fellow policeman Wade Dooley to shackle the experienced Steve Cutler and Bill Campbell in the line-outs. Morris, a Welsh scrum-half playing for unfashionable Winnington Park, was one of England's try scorers, and laid the foundations of a career which went on to take in the 1993 Lions tour of New Zealand and 1995 World Cup.

Alas, Harriman, a wing with electrifying pace but suspect defence, was not so lucky - the game was his only international, although he went on to captain England's World Cup Sevens winning squad in 1993. In effect, he queered his pitch by being left for dead when David Campese, probably rugby's outstanding player at the time, sprinted 60 yards for a spectacular interception try which put the Australians 13-9 up shortly after half-time.

Robinson, who put in a tireless display, was adjudged along with the No 8 Richards and Morris as the principal reason for England's superiority on the day over a team that included greats such as Michael Lynagh and Nick Farr-Jones.

Campese's magical effort was the second time that Australia held the lead - they went ahead during the first half with a try from their full- back Andrew Leeds, converted by Lynagh, who also landed a penalty. Morris' try, converted by Webb, meant that England were level at 9-9 at the interval.

The key to victory, though, came when Rory Underwood went over twice in the space of six minutes. The first try was created by Rob Andrew and the second came courtesy of some deft handling by four England forwards who outflanked the Australian defence. James Grant's late try for Australia, converted by Lynagh, caused a few flutters amongst home supporters before these were gloriously and memorably settled by Halliday's touchdown.

Even though Cooke, now grappling with the more prosaic problem of running Bedford, has only a hazy recollection of the match, he is quick to confirm its importance. "It showed that we could compete with the best and was a highly significant day in the development of what became a very successful England side."