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

Chris Hewett on a belated retirement

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EYFS Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education require an ex...

Year 3 Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Year 3 primary supply teacher ne...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home