As England captain, Will Carling led England to three Grand Slams in the (then) Five Nations, in ’91, ’92, and ’95. Since then England have managed just one, in 2003. There are few men who can claim to be in a better position to comment on the current crop’s chances of adding to that list.
How impressed has he been with the progress made by Lancaster’s young charges over the last year, then? “Really impressed,” he says, “in the sense that they seem to be quietly accumulating experience and there just seems to be far more cohesion and intent in their game.”
He cites the Ireland game as an important moment in their development. “They hadn’t won in Ireland for 10 years, and Ireland have some very experienced, key players. I think that everything takes time, but they’re slowly and quietly developing as a close-knit but very effective team.”
You don’t win three Grand Slams by underestimating your opponents, however. “I just wish France hadn’t played two and lost two,” says Carling. “It’s just set up for them to come here with no pressure and play, and that’s when they’re at their most dangerous. That frightens me.” Now they’ve announced their line-up, that statement rings truer than ever. Trinh-Duc at fly-half, Fofana in the centre, Parra at scrum-half – this is finally a French team that makes sense. England beware.
As a former captain of the national side, Carling is aware of the travails that come with the job: the constant media attention, the scrutiny over your every decision on the pitch, the weight of a nation’s hopes on your shoulders. It therefore speaks volumes that he has only good things to say about Chris Robshaw’s tenure at the helm of the Red Rose.
“I think most importantly he’s actually played really well and therefore has the respect of his players, but I think also he’s just conducted himself really well,” he says. “I think the key thing for him is that he has a leadership group around him. That’s what England have got to develop – four or five guys who are like a leadership team on the field. Once England can get that, I think they’re looking very, very strong.”
And what of England’s other potential stumbling block in their quest for the Grand Slam? With no disrespect to Italy, it is surely Wales that England will worry about should they triumph in Le Crunch this weekend. Carling says the Welsh resilience was particularly impressive against France: “It was an incredibly tense game, and I think they held their nerve really well. From a Welsh point of view it was really impressive, and it was something they can really improve from. Which personally I’m gutted about.” Old rivalries still ring true, it would seem. It is a compliment to Wales that a man with Carling’s record is worried about them.
Leaving the Six Nations to one side for a moment, he says he is baffled by the recent comments from Lions head coach Warren Gatland. “I just didn’t understand why he went down that road – it’s a no win situation for him. Of course there’s history with England, but the whole point of a Lions tour is that that’s immaterial – the Aussies don’t look at this as an English team, it’s a Lions team.” From the general reaction over the past few weeks, it seems most people would agree with him.
Returning to more current affairs, he is coy in predicting a victory for his country this weekend. “My heart says England will win. I think it probably will (be close).” It should indeed be a just that. France bring with them some horrible form but also some outrageous potential. As so often is the case with French teams, if they click they can be lethal. England will very much be hoping that is not the case.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Will Carling (@WillCarling) will host a one hour Twitter Q&A from 1pm to 2pm on February 22nd, ahead of England’s clash with France. To get involved simply submit your questions using the hashtag #AskCarling. He will also be hosting a follow up Q&A every Monday from 12.30 to 1.30pm to review and discuss every tackle and try from the weekend’s action.