The president of the RFU, Dennis Easby, issued a statement yesterday that said it was "inappropriate" for Carling to continue as England captain, and added that a successor will be chosen shortly. The decision is certain to cause deep divisions within the game, and while few deny that Carling's remarks were both insensitive and ill-timed, the player has since admitted his folly, claiming his remarks were taken out of context and apologising to offended officials.
But the five officers of the RFU who met on Friday night to pass sentence on their errant captain were unanimous. "It is," said Dudley Wood, the RFU secretary, "a very sad day for English rugby. It was strongly felt by the committee that his position as captain was untenable. His attack on the committee who had appointed him gave them no alternative but to dismiss him."
Wood went on to say that the decision had been made after consultation between the officers and the England management. However, Easby contradicted this yesterday. "I specifically excluded Jack Rowell from the decision," he said. "I did not want him to be a party and, therefore, did not seek his opinion."
Rowell, England's manager, informed on Friday night and was shocked. "When I spoke to Will this morning he was close to tears," he said. "He is a devastated young man. I found it especially sad because he has relaunched his career this season and has worked extremely hard on his captaincy. It is a tragedy for Carling, and a huge blow for the team."
The players' reaction could have serious repercussions, with the World Cup in South Africa now less than three weeks away. Most of those involved in yesterday's Pilkington Cup final kept their own counsel, saying only that they will have a meeting at tomorrow's squad session. Carling himself said: "I am very sad and disappointed to lose the captaincy. I am sorry that my remarks were misconstrued and heard out of context. I have got to pull myself together, get on with my life and rugby, and help England win the World Cup."
"So far as I am concerned," added Rowell, "he has been picked and if he wishes to play he will be in the side."
Carling, 29, was appointed as captain seven years ago when he was the youngest player in the England team. He has led his country on 48 occasions - a world record - and under his leadership England won 37 games, lost 10, drew once, claimed three Grand Slams in the Five Nations' Championship and reached the World Cup final in 1991. He was appointed by Geoff Cooke, who said "choosing Will as captain was the best decision I ever made in rugby".
The most pressing problem for Rowell is to appoint a successor. "I have not had time to consult with anyone but clearly there are names - not one name - we have to consider." Rowell will make his recommendation to Easby on Tuesday and there are a number of possible contenders - Rob Andrew, Tim Rodber and Dean Richards. Andrew would be the best choice. He has the respect of the players and the authority as a player of world standing. Ironically, it was also Andrew who persuaded Carling not to resign the captaincy following criticism of his leadership after England's defeat at Murrayfield in 1990. But Andrew's participation in Channel 4's Fair Game, the programme in which Carling made his unfortunate remarks may stand against him.
Rodber, while he fulfils a number of the criteria, may not yet have been forgiven for his aberration at Port Elizabeth last summer when, as acting captain of the England team, he was sent off. Rowell is known to be an admirer of the Northampton flanker and sees him as captaincy material. Richards has nothing to prove in any area other than the fact that over five weeks on the hard grounds of South Africa, he cannot be assured of winning his place at No 8. He is, however, a proven leader, and one who is unlikely to cause any embarrassment to anybody.
Dudley Wood has claimed that the RFU has received hundreds of letters, all condemning Carling's criticisms of the committee. Many may believe that the RFU response is ill-considered and hasty, but no other sport would tolerate such intemperate words from their captain. Even more imprudent was the timing. The RFU are in the process of re-drawing the guidelines on amateurism which would enable the players to derive considerably increased financial reward, a matter that Carling has campaigned on for some time.
There is a precedent for the dismissal of an England captain. In 1987, Richard Hill was relieved of the job after violent incidents in a game against Wales in Cardiff. But nothing in the history of English rugby has been so dramatically shocking as the sacking of a man who has led his nation to unparalleled success.
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