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Will Carling: 'The beaten captain won't want to think that his team could have played better'

Brian Viner Interviews: The former England centre knows what it is like to lead a losing World Cup final side – the feeling 'just eats you up for years'

Will Carling does not expect England to beat South Africa in Saturday's World Cup final, but then he didn't expect them to beat Australia or France, either. "And sometimes," he says, "sides get such momentum in a competition that they become unstoppable. I think England have almost reached that point, and I've no doubt that they have the personnel to beat South Africa. If they can just stay in contention, and it comes to the last 10 or 15 minutes, then who would you want in the No 10 shirt: Butch James, or Jonny Wilkinson?"

The last time I talked to Carling, it was at his handsome house in stockbroker-belt Hampshire. He admitted to me then that, as the first man to captain England in a World Cup final, the 12-6 defeat by Australia in 1991, he had been worried about his own reaction when Martin Johnson lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003. "I wondered whether I was going to look at him and think, 'You bastard, I wanted that to be me.' When he did lift it, I was certainly very emotional. My lip started to go. But thankfully it was for the right reasons, which came as a great relief."

This time, talking to me on the phone while motoring through heavy traffic, he has no such concerns. He knows he will be cock-a-hoop if Phil Vickery emulates Johnson (and at the time of talking he is still "pulling strings" to get himself a ticket), but if it is to happen then England too will have to find their way through heavy traffic, in particular the Springbok back row.

"The back-row contest is crucial. South Africa get a lot of confidence from those big, powerful ball carriers, but if the English back row can stop them on the gain line, then South Africa will have to go to the midfield to create momentum, where I think they'll miss [the centre, Jean] de Villiers massively. [Francois] Steyn is hugely talented, but he's mercurial. He can have shockers, and the same with Butch James..."

We'll return to Carling's hopes and fears for Saturday, but it's also worth asking England's most successful captain of the 20th century, a man who led his players to three Grand Slams as well as that World Cup final, whether he thinks that he and his team in a sense laid the foundation stone for the success of 2003, and 2007 too, whatever happens in the Stade de France.

"Well, all false modesty aside, I don't put anything down to my captaincy," he says, "but I do think the guy who deserves a lot of credit and doesn't really get it is [the then manager] Geoff Cooke. Geoff was a very shrewd selector, who kept the nucleus of the team together for five or six years, and I think that did lay a foundation of success in the Six Nations, or the Five Nations as it was then. England got used to winning."

Does he reflect on the 1991 World Cup as one of the pinnacles of his career, or one of his biggest disappointments?

"No, it was very disappointing, because I've no doubt that we could have won it on the day. But we played almost as well as we could, and created enough chances to win. Whoever the beaten captain is on Saturday won't want to be thinking that his team could have played better, because that just eats you up for years. In 1991 I felt that Australia played to about 70 per cent of their potential, and we played to about 90 per cent of ours. But you know, one of the things Clive [Woodward] very shrewdly did was get England to play annually against the southern hemisphere boys, because that really did banish once and for all the aura that surrounded those teams. [Actually, it was Jack Rowell who got that ball rolling, but let's not quibble.] In 1991 that aura was still there. We lost to New Zealand in the first game of that World Cup, and we should have beaten them then, but we didn't believe that we could beat them until after the game."

Speaking of belief, can he believe what has happened to England these past five weeks? "No, I really haven't ever seen anything like it. I'm still emotionally involved when I watch England, and after the South Africa pool game I was as depressed as I have ever been watching a rugby game. I genuinely thought we would take them on, rise to the occasion, so when we didn't I was unbelievably down. I really thought we would be going out in the pool stages.

"So to go from that to this has been awesome, and it's been a frustration for me hearing from the Welsh, the New Zealanders, the Aussies, that England's success in this World Cup is not good for rugby. I'm sure that the New Zealanders would give their right arms to be in this position whether playing the way we are or not, yet they don't seem to admire what the England team has achieved..."

Maybe they do, I venture, but can't quite spit out the words. "I hope so," he says.

Carling has been working for the radio station TalkSport during the World Cup, and I tell him that it has been one of the highlights of my mornings, listening to him and David Campese going about their punditry, but with Campese's compatriots back home and Carling's still very much in croissant country.

"Yeah, but much as I like to wind Campo up, one allegation I've always agreed with about the English is that we can be incredibly arrogant. I don't think we are this time. Let's be honest, we're euphoric but stunned that we are where we are, and there's no room for arrogance. One thing I always massively admired about Martin Johnson was that he was never arrogant. Some other players and a few of the management team were accused of it leading up to 2003, but Johnno never was.

"It's the same this time. England have got where they are through incredibly hard work, and a steel will, but there's no arrogance about them."

Let's talk about the 36-0 steamrollering on 14 September. Will that devastating defeat act as a shot in the arm for the English, because they will be so determined to take revenge for their humiliation, or will it boost South Africa, who know they can wipe the floor with England?

"It's interesting, isn't it," Carling says. "So much has happened to England since that game that I think it's become irrelevant. They're in a completely different frame of mind, now, with a different level of confidence in themselves and each other. The other crucial point is that South Africa played almost as well as they can that night. Butch James, [Fourie] du Preez, were sublime. I'm just not sure they can get back to that level.

"Also, England have been under real pressure in four games, whereas South Africa haven't really known pressure yet. And we saw how New Zealand reacted to real pressure, how Australia reacted. Who knows how those guys will react? Argentina didn't create much pressure for them. They gave them two easy tries and made all those handling errors. England have to put them under intense pressure, over 30 or 40 minutes, and I think we have the edge in the scrum. We had the edge, bizarrely, even in that pool game. And our scrum has improved since then."

Away from the scrum, there is South Africa's own golden boy to consider, the dashing Percy Montgomery. Carling thinks he knows how how to point Percy back down the tunnel, a defeated man. "He's been in incredible form, kicking-wise. But Argentina kicked very poorly to him. They gave him a lot of time under the high ball. We mustn't do that, and we mustn't kick too long. We need to arrive, man on ball, as quickly as possible. And try the odd little grubber through from the centre to cut [Bryan] Habana out of the game."

Centre is Carling's old position, of course, and he feels that England do not yet have a balanced combination there to develop over the next couple of years. After all, Mike Catt is nobody's idea of a chap for the future. "But they've found the right combination here, and that's all that matters at the moment. Catt's partnership with Mathew Tait has worked well, and out on the wing, although Josh Lewsey is a big, big miss, because his work rate is massive, that's the nature of the beast in World Cups. You've got to be mentally strong enough to deal with that, and the players around have to dig a little bit deeper to help the guy who comes in."

Happily, the guys around seem able to dig through to Australia if required. Let's just hope they're carrying the Webb Ellis Trophy when they get there.

Will Carling runs the social networking website

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