So Will, how did you feel you were perceived in Wales during your playing career?
“I would say pretty much universally hated,” he replies.
“That would be my take on it.”
Welcome to the world of Will Carling.
For much of the 1990s, he was a pantomime villain for Welsh rugby fans, the personification of the England team, which he captained for eight years. He was the man they loved to hate.
As he reveals when we catch up for a life-and-times chat, it used to see him coming in for some pretty fearful abuse.
Yet, the irony is, for the first few years of his life, he thought he was Welsh!
That was down to his father being a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Regiment of Wales and having played for Cardiff RFC.
William Derrick John (Bill) Carling made 20 appearances at prop forward for the Blue & Blacks in the 1966-67 season when his young son was just a year or so old.
“He was stationed not far from Cardiff for the first couple of years of my life, so I guess that’s how he ended up playing for the club,” explains Will.
“It was the same season Gareth Edwards started with them, so my dad played alongside him.
“So I grew up knowing he played at the Arms Park.
“He had the Cardiff tie, which he always used to insist on wearing for England-Wales games.
“He talked about Cardiff, so my heroes were Welsh players, Gareth and JPR , Gerald and Phil Bennett. I thought they were just outstanding.
“I was under the misapprehension that I was Welsh for a few years. I was quite excited because obviously they won a lot.
“It was only when I was about six or seven that I realised we actually weren’t Welsh.
“It was a case of ‘No, no, we are the English’ and we weren’t winning quite as much.
“So it was like, ‘Oh ok, oh s**t.”
Born in Bath, Carling moved about a fair bit as a child, while his education saw him attending Terra Nova School in Cheshire and then Sedbergh School in Cumbria.
While at Sedbergh – a renowned rugby establishment – he played two seasons for England Schoolboys, captaining them in his second year.
Then it was off to Durham University to study psychology on an army scholarship, with his reputation as a strong-running young centre growing during his time there and through his link up with Harlequins.
Yet he had no expectation whatsoever of making it onto the international stage.
“I’d always had this view that people who played for England proper were just different animals,” he recalls.
“I was a mortal and they came from a different place.
“It was never a case of ‘Maybe I could’. I just never thought I would. I am just not really built like that.
“I never thought at any point before I got picked that I could do that. It was my dream, but I never foresaw that I could actually do it. It was weird.”
Yet in January 1988, the dream became a reality when he was chosen to make his Test debut against France at the Parc des Princes.
“There I was, playing in Paris, up against Philippe Sella,” he says.
“We were expected to get hammered. I was just basically terrified.”
Carling stayed in the team and, next up, it was Wales at Twickenham, a game famous for Adrian Hadley’s two tries.
“I remember Jiffy and Rob Jones came out with matching mullets and matching four sizes too tight shorts,” he recalls.
“But they had this sort of air. They almost looked at me like ‘Who the f*** are you? I haven’t seen you before’.”
“They had the look of ‘By the way mate, we are Wales and we win’ and they did. It was like that back then.
“So played two, lost two. Not a great start to my international career.”
The plan had been for Carling to join the Royal Regiment of Wales as an officer on leaving University.
He had already been on exercises with them and played for the army, but, in the end, it wasn’t to be.
“I was on an army scholarship at University, so I was meant to be in the military,” he explains.
“But they said I couldn’t play rugby for six months, so I ended up saying thanks but no thanks.
“I was never fully commissioned.”
Had he been allowed to carry on playing while with the RRW, might he possibly have followed in his father’s footsteps?
“Possibly. That would have been great, captain England, but play for Cardiff,” he muses.
“John Scott did it after all, but he was quite a hard bloke!”
Instead, Carling carried on playing for ‘Quins and then, in November 1988, came a defining moment in his life when he was chosen to captain England against Australia at Twickenham, aged just 22.
He had already played under four different skippers in less than a year in the team – Mike Harrison, Nigel Melville, John Orwin and Richard Harding.
Now it was his turn.
“Geoff Cooke (coach) announced it in the Petersham Hotel in Richmond,” he recalls.
“He said Will Carling is going to be captain and captain for the foreseeable future.
“There was just silence and then the players just wandered off to the bar.
“I remember talking to Peter Winterbottom years later and asking him ‘What the hell did you lot say?’.
“He said ‘We were all sitting there going two, three games max’.
“Everyone just thought that would be it.
“Eight and a bit years later, I was still there. It was crazy.”
Things started well for Carling, with England undefeated in his first four games at the helm.
But then came Cardiff and a 12-9 defeat to Wales on a rain-soaked afternoon in March 1989.
Looking back now, he admits to having been a bit awestruck by the whole occasion.
“I have to be honest, when I first walked in, you are looking across and thinking ‘Christ, that’s where Gareth changed, this is where they played’,” he says.
“That’s the first time I had ever been there. I had watched it on TV, but never been there.
“So suddenly, it was like ‘Christ, this is where they were’.
“Then there was the Welsh anthem and there was just all this passion.
“It was my first experience down there and we didn’t deal with it well.
“We just didn’t get it right. We didn’t deal with the intensity.
“They went for Mike Teague at the kick-off and he was off straight away. That was a bit of a knock.
“In those days, you could get away with that sort of stuff.
“It was pouring with rain. Rob (Jones) just box-kicked and he kicked beautifully all day.
“Wales had a very limited game. We wanted to play and we lost our composure.
“I no doubt as captain lost my composure. I couldn’t solve what the issues were.
“One of my most vivid memories was driving back up the M4 after the game and stopping in a service station around Swindon.
“I walked in and bought some water and something else.
“There was a coach load of Welsh fans who I guess lived in London or whatever and were heading home. They were in a great mood.
“They made a tunnel all the way back out to the car park and the abuse I got was unbelievable.
“It was ‘Right ok, yeah’.
“When you got back in the car, you realised this is what it means to Welsh fans.
“It was a pretty rude awakening to what it’s all about.”
That defeat and the loss to Grand Slam-winning Scotland up in Murrayfield the following year were to prove watershed moments for Carling and his team.
“What hit me in Wales and up in Scotland was the unbelievable passion and pride,” he said.
“As an Englishman, it was like ‘Why can’t we be like this?’
“We worked very hard as a group to be as passionate and as proud and as emotional and worked up as the other countries – and it worked.”
So when they returned to Cardiff in January 1991, they were ready.
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“There were lots of little things,” he says.
“We trained at Gloucester and Geoff (Cooke) put the Welsh national anthem on, on repeat.
“I remember some of the press went ‘How stupid is this?’.
“We used to stay at St Pierre golf club just over the bridge. It was very nice and cut off.
“Then you’d get on the coach and go into the middle of Cardiff and hit this wall of emotion. We didn’t deal with it in ‘89.
“So Geoff said, right let’s go and stay in the Crest, right next to the ground.
“We stayed there and we just walked into the ground.
“We were ready mentally for what it means to play there as an English side.
“There was a huge amount of respect for Wales, but it was ‘Right, we have got to take it on, there is no point shying away from it’.
“It’s massively important, so let’s take it on.”
The end result was a 25-6 win, England’s first victory in Cardiff since 1963.
That was to be the launchpad for successive Grand Slams – in ‘91 and ‘92 – as well as a World Cup final appearance.
“I’ve got very special memories of those times and the guys,” said Carling.
“We managed to generate a bit of belief, a bit of emotion, a bit of edge.”
But then, in February 1993, the wheels came off the English chariot as they suffered a shock 10-9 defeat to unfancied Wales in Cardiff.
“It was just a reminder,” says the former skipper.
“We had won two Grand Slams and then you go down there and when you are not on it 100 per cent you are going to be had and we were had.
“The lesson is you’ve got to be absolutely on your game and we weren’t.”
It’s a match famous for Ieuan Evans’ try, with the Wales captain catching opposing wing Rory Underwood unawares, as he scorched outside him and hacked ahead to score.
“I was screaming at Rory but he couldn’t hear us,” reveals Carling.
“It’s like a nightmare film where you are shouting because you can see what’s unfolding and he can’t hear you, so you are just having to watch it.
“It was like in slow motion. You are like ‘Oh God’ and that was it.
“I remember sitting with Rory in the changing room afterwards and he was devastated, saying ‘I lost the game’.
“I was like ‘No, you didn’t’. He said ‘I did, I let them score’.
“I said ‘That didn’t lose the game Rory, we lost the game in all sorts of ways’.
“I remember saying to him ‘Hang on, you have scored more tries than anyone else for England. Did you win all those games?’ and he went ‘No’.
“I said ‘Well exactly, the same as you didn’t lose us the game today’.
“And he didn’t.
“Wales’ defence was unbelievable. There were lots of different things they did that actually meant they won the game.
“It wasn’t just a freak try. In fact, it wasn’t a freak try, it was a great try.
“He was quick Ieuan and quite a skilful bastard as well!”
That story about his dressing room consoling of Underwood perhaps gives an insight into what kind of captain Carling was.
So I wondered how he now looks back on the way he did the job?
“I can imagine most of the forwards thought I was a pain in the arse!” he replies.
“They would be thinking ‘He doesn’t respect what happens at scrum time, he wants us to change, he wants us to be fitter’. The stuff I talked to be them about.
“The thing was, I sat on selection.
“You are 22 years old and suddenly sitting on selection on guys that are your heroes and I found that unbelievably hard.
“I had to work out in my mind that you are not picking who you like more than others and not dropping who you dislike.
“You have got to be really clear that you are picking the best England side. I like to think we got that balance.
“I remember Mike Teague saying years later ‘You put England first in what you did and no-one could ever say you weren’t completely committed to what was best for England’.
“I like to think I fought the players’ corner. I would put my arm round their shoulder, but I would also push them hard as well.
“If you look after people and have a genuine interest in them, you earn the right to push them and try and get them to fulfil that potential.
“As captain, I always believed building people’s confidence is key because people play better when they are confident.
“That is 80-90 per cent of what I tried to do as a captain.
“Then 10-15 per cent was driving it just that little bit harder and just trying to learn and become better.”
The more successful England were, the more unpopular Carling became in those countries which his team were regularly beating.
And it wasn’t in his nature to turn the other cheek when the flak flew.
“There was a Scottish journalist interviewed me before we played Scotland for the Grand Slam game in 1995,” he recalls.
“He did the whole interview and then goes ‘Right, last question. How do you take the fact that the whole of Scotland hates you?’.
“I looked at him and said ‘Hey, that’s fine because I f***ing hate you’.
“I remember he dropped his pen, literally, as I leant towards him.
“He said ‘You cannae say that.’
“I said ‘Why not? That’s what really pisses me off about you lot. You can hate me, but I can’t hate you back’.
“I just said to him ‘Trust me on this, I f***ing hate you a damn sight more than you hate me’ and I just got up and walked out.
“Luckily, he didn’t actually print it!
“Maybe it’s the way I am made.
“If you are going to go at me, fine, but I will do everything I can to come back at you.
“I am pretty easy going, unless you come at me.
“Whether it was the Welsh or the Scots, my big thing was I am as proud to play for England as you are to play for Wales or Scotland.
“I respect everything that goes with playing for Wales, but for some reason you are not allowed to be passionate as an Englishman.
“As soon as you are passionate, you are arrogant. Why? Why is that arrogant?
“Why can’t I be passionate about England and playing for England and wanting to win in an England shirt?
“A lot of the time it’s misrepresented in the way it comes across.
“I was portrayed as this public school army officer, a very confident, arrogant Englishman.
“I am sure the way I carried myself on the pitch fulfilled all those pre-conceived ideas, because you are trying as captain to give off an air of confidence. You are a leader, for Christ’s sake, you are meant to be confident.
“As a guy off the pitch, you were a very different human being, but that’s what people don’t see.
“You just have to accept you are England captain and if you happen to win a few games you are not going to be popular.
“And if you talk about wanting to win that makes you even more unpopular, because the English are not meant to want to win. It’s funny, isn’t it?”
Carling does acknowledge that he made a rod for his own back at times.
“I didn’t do myself any favours because I didn’t play the media game,” he admits.
“I wasn’t interested. I just focused on playing and wanting to get that right.
“I wasn’t very good, to say the least, with the media. I was very immature.
“You get criticised by the media and then you think ‘Well, f*** off’.
“That’s way mature, but that’s how I was as a young guy. You are thinking ‘This is my dream, how can you criticise us?’
“It’s only when you get a bit older you realise they have a job to do and a role to play. It would have been far cleverer to understand that early on.
“But I was made captain at 22 and then you are just sat in a room with 30 journalists.
“No-one talked to you about it or prepared you for it. It’s crazy when you think about it really.
“So my view on the media wasn’t great, but it came from a very immature, selfish point of view.
“It’s only when you look back on it you think, ‘God, I wish I had done that differently’.
“But that’s life, isn’t it?”
Carling’s 72nd and final cap came against Wales in Cardiff in March 1997, a match that also saw the international swansong for Jonathan ‘Jiffy’ Davies and Rob Andrew.
“That was really nice because they were mates on the pitch and we went back a long way,” he says.
“I remember getting picked for the Barbarians when I was at Durham. We were playing in Scotland.
“I went up there, this student picked for the Baa-Baas and you are like ‘Wow’.
“I walked into the team room and Jiffy was there and I am like ‘Jonathan Davies, bloody hell’.
“I went up to the bar and he said ‘Do you want a drink?’. He obviously didn’t know my name.
“I said ‘I would love one actually’. So he ordered me a pint and left me the bill.
“I ended up paying for it, me a student. It made me think he is quite sharp this boy.
“So it was nice to play my last game with Jiffy.”
Carling finally hung up his boots three years later in 2000. So how, two decades on, does he look back on his playing days?
“You have great experiences and make great friends,” he replies.
“You are lucky to have been around in the time you were.
“I hope the guys now enjoy it as much as I did then.
“Ultimately, it’s about the people you are lucky enough to play alongside and the characters. It’s about those experiences and those friendships. It’s bloody great.”
Since finishing playing, Carling has been active in the media as a pundit, while he has also worked as a motivational speaker and founded a corporate hospitality company.
That latter project has seen him involved in a number of match day events at Twickenham, with world famous former players as guests, bringing his rugby story full circle.
“We would get guys like Zinzan Brooke, Fitzpatrick, McCaw, Carter on the stage, big names,” he says.
“But, one day, we had Gareth in.
“Me being me, most of the talk at those kind of events is piss-taking and stories.
“But I remember turning to Gareth and I suddenly thought, I can’t take the piss out of him. It’s Gareth Edwards.
“It was one of those moments where you are a kid again and you have to be very contained and deferential.
“You can’t take the piss out of Gareth.”
Now 55, Carling is a busy man.
As well as doing punditry and leadership seminars, he is also doing a lot of work with Amazon Web Services, who he put in as a sponsor for the Six Nations.
He is in the process of launching a corporate cycling club and also has ideas for TV and sport on the boil, as well as other business interests.
Then there’s his role with Eddie Jones’ England as a mentor to senior players, something which he says he loves.
So plenty on the go.
Finally, we go back to where we began, to the way he is perceived by Welsh people.
“There have been lots of times when I’ve been down there, with Rob or Jiffy or Ieuan, and people sort of go ‘Shit, you’re not what I thought you were’.
“And you go, ‘Well, yeah, no, thank God’.
“As long as I’m not, then I’m quite happy.
“I would like to think the caricature is not accurate, that I’m not what I was portrayed to be.”
Having spent a fascinating hour in his congenial company, I can confirm that perception and reality are very different things when it comes to Will Carling.