The winning and losing ways of Will Carling - rugby's first superstar

Chris Hewett on a belated retirement

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On a grey Twickenham afternoon in March 1996, Will Carling inexplicably tripped over a loose lump of finely manicured turf during a Five Nations international match with Ireland and plummeted to the floor with his ankle ligaments in shreds.

It was not the first time England's most celebrated rugby player had fallen flat on his face on the big occasion, but it was very definitely the cruellest. After eight years as captain of his country, Carling was leaving centre-stage on a stretcher rather than on the shoulders of an adoring public.

A more sanguine, less egocentric character might have read the runes and called it quits immediately. After all, Carling had already decided to relinquish the captaincy at the end of a debilitating few months during which he had not only engaged in a neurotic game of one-upmanship with Jack Rowell, the equally complex and self-absorbed England coach, but also played fast and loose with the tabloids, who, unsurprisingly, were more than a little exercised by his "close friendship" with the Princess of Wales.

Sadly, Carling the obsessive held sway over Carling the shrewd careerist. He played another season, both for Harlequins and England, without ever looking like the world-beater he once was, and at the end of a less-than- vintage campaign he was ignored by the British Lions for last summer's tour of South Africa. If the sporting landscape is littered with the smouldering reputations of those who went one round too many, Carling is now to be found amongst the wreckage.

His final months in the game he once lived and loved to the full were tainted by rows and recriminations, by public arguments and private spin- doctoring carried out by a clique of faithful allies who stuck by him through thick and thin. There were differences with Fran Cotton, the Lions' manager, and a serious falling out with Dick Best, a long-time friend and supporter, which eventually cost the Harlequins coach his job. And then, last weekend, Carling locked horns with Best's successor, Andy Keast, a former London policeman who once disarmed a gunman in the East End. There was, as they say in sport, only one winner.

Yet for almost a decade, Carling was the seminal figure in a golden age of English rugby, an era in which a sweaty jockstrap of a game reached new heights of fashion. When Geoff Cooke, the recently-appointed coach of a forlorn, flabby, under-performing national team, first capped him 10 years ago this month and then handed him the reins at 22, rugby had found itself a catalyst as well as a captain.

Here was a walking, talking set of credentials, a rugged good-looker who could do the business in the studio and on the catwalk as well as on the pitch and in the dressing-room. Carling was seriously pukka, all Pimms and Putney; if England's last folk-hero captain, Bill Beaumont, had looked like a combine harvester, this boy was a 24-carat Roller with full leather upholstery. He was too damned posh to seduce the suspicious provincial die-hards who lurk in the great rugby heartland of the West Country - ironically enough, he was born in Wiltshire - but the Twickenham set fell for him hook, line and gumshield.

What was more, there was substance beneath the glitzy surface; during the 1990 Five Nations tournament England played their most exhilarating rugby for a generation and Carling, every inch a world-class centre, was the personification of the new expansive style. However, the halo slipped, for the first time, when England travelled to Scotland for the final game, a Grand Slam decider that generated an interest far beyond the usual confines of the union code. The Scots brought the spirit of Bannockburn to the battlefield that day and exposed Carling as both naive and inflexible in his leadership.

Something similar would happen some 18 months later when England contested the 1991 World Cup Final with Australia. This time, Carling was fully equipped with a Plan B. Unfortunately for him, he activated it against opponents who feared Plan A rather more. If leadership means anything in a game of rugby - and there are those who believe captaincy means nothing at all - the red rose army marched into the biggest conflict in their history without a general.

England would subsequently win Triple Crowns and Grand Slams under their still glamorous but increasingly distant father figure, but the main chance had come and gone and Carling knew it. He was earning a fortune, even under amateur regulations - his lectures to star-struck business leaders on teamwork and motivation would not have been nearly so lucrative had he been the captain of Old Rubberduckians rather than his country - but his naivete and lack of judgement, already laid bare for all to see on the field of play, would betray him again.

Just before the 1995 World Cup, he spoke off-camera to a sports documentary crew and referred to the members of the Rugby Football Union as "57 old farts" - a comment that was broadcast, much to Carling's unworldly astonishment. Old Fartdom reacted sniffily and sacked him, a decision that so infuriated an England camp bristling with player power that they threatened to block any appointment of a new captain. Carling was reinstated inside 48 hours, but from that moment, rugby's enormously influential establishment had him marked down as an outsider. He was no longer "one of us".

In many ways, Carling was never a natural insider anyway. Such contradictory characters seldom are. A diffident man with an almost paranoid suspicion of the media, he now intends to pursue a career as a television anchorman. An instinctive "lad" with a rugby player's capacity for umpteen gallons of beer, he has manufactured and financed a lifestyle that virtually disqualifies him from a simple night out with the boys. Quite how he intends to square those circles without his regular Saturday afternoon adrenalin fix only time - and, no doubt, the tabloids - will tell.

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