His family, in a spirit of affection no doubt, nicknamed him The Little Shit. One of his first long-term girlfriends called him Big Willy, or at least that is how he signed himself in letters to her. The players in the England rugby team he captained for eight years knew him as Bumface – it was to do with the curious shape of his chin, a firm pair of buttocks hewn with a wide chisel. But the name that seems to have stuck for Will Carling is the one conferred on him by the Sun three years ago: Love Rat.
‘I suppose it was the perfect story,’ Carling says, lowering his voice, as well as his eyes. ‘As far as the media was concerned.’ He gently kneads the velvety ears of a dark chocolate labrador, staring at his fingers and thumbs as if they were not his own. ‘It had everything.’
It certainly did. Carling had already put the press on high alert in 1996 when his two-year-long marriage to his first wife Julia ended in divorce, following very public speculation as to the exact nature of his relationship with the Princess of Wales. When two years later he left Ali Cockayne, Gary Lineker’s sister-in-law, for another woman – Lisa, the wife of his former Harlequins team-mate David Cooke – he also walked out on their 11-month-old son Henry. According to Ali’s version of events the first she knew of Will’s decision to leave was when she came across a revised draft of his autobiography in which all references to their relationship had been changed to the past tense. As far as she was concerned, they were planning to marry. She had even chosen her wedding dress. Pictured sobbing outside her house, baby in arms, she said, ‘I just hurt – I really hurt. No one could have done more damage to me than this.’
Overnight Carling went from sporting hero – he is the most capped and, with three Grand Slams to his name, the most successful captain England has had – to pantomime villain. His testimonial match was cancelled at short notice, as were various endorsements, after-dinner speaking engagements and a 19-theatre tour of An Evening with Will Carling. Signed copies of his autobiography gathered dust on the shelves of bookshops. He had expected to make £1 million that autumn. Instead he ended up having to sell his £800,000 house in Berkshire. It was a modern morality tale.
Will and Lisa Carling married on the island of Fiji in 1999. They live in a rented house – 14th-century in parts, leaded windows, beamed ceilings – on the edge of a village green in Surrey. Outside, under a light blanket of fallen leaves, a Range-Rover and a Jaguar are parked. Inside a log fire is burning, Lisa – blonde, trim, friendly – is making coffee for a BT engineer in the hope, she whispers to me, that he can be persuaded to fit an extra line which wasn’t part of the initial order, and Jack, the couple’s 15-month-old son, is asleep upstairs. Will, his eyebrows and gelled hair as black as the Devil’s heart, is sitting on a deep sofa in the drawing-room, his legs crossed.
He can do this now. There was a time when his thighs were so hefty – a build up of lactic acid in the muscle caused by punishing workouts on a Cybex exercise bike – he couldn’t. At 36, he is still a solid 5ft 10in but, if anything, he looks top-heavy now, as if substance has been transferred from his legs to his head, a balloon squeezed at one end that bulges at the other. Though he no longer plays rugby – ‘Nah, I don’t miss it. I miss the players but not the playing’ – he does still exercise regularly, mostly on his mountain bike, and he does do a little yoga, when not watching Coronation Street, his favourite programme, or listening to the Bee Gees, his favourite band.
Behind him is a stack of memorabilia which he displays in the marquee that Will Carling Management, his corporate hospitality company, runs at Twickenham: his old rugby boots in a glass case; a moody black-and-white blow-up of him leading the players out of the tunnel; framed cuttings about the ’57 old farts’ affair – the time in 1995 when ‘Greedy Carling’ was sacked temporarily as England captain for saying, off-camera, that the members of the RFU committee were old farts because they disapproved of his plans to make money by turning international rugby from an amateur sport into a professional one.
Is he still having a hard time financially? ‘Well, everything is relative,’ he says with an ambiguous smile. ‘What is a hard time?’ Losing a million. ‘Yeah, but the weird thing is, it was never about the money for me. The lost million has never bothered me. Relatively, I did go through a hard time. At one point I did wonder how I was going to earn a living. I even thought of becoming a taxi-driver. It has been hard because we have school fees to pay for Tom and Tali [Lisa’s children, ages 14 and 12] and there was a lot of pressure suddenly. But, touch wood, it’s all right now.’
How did he live with the humiliation of having his testimonial match cancelled? Long pause. ‘Personally, it was never a great ambition of mine to have a testimonial match. Other people suggested it.’ He leans forward. ‘So when it got called off, for me, it was like neither here nor there. I’d have liked to have played in it. Lots of players have said to me since that they wish it had gone ahead. I saw Jonah [Lomu] last night and he was saying it was a shame. But, yes,’ Carling sucks in air between his teeth, ‘at the time it was horrific. I mean, really horrific. For Lisa, for Lisa’s family, for my family. Unbelievable. I think back to it now and I get this horrible churning in my stomach. But, you know, you make your decision. Whether people agree with… I mean, if people want to judge… It’s the sort of decision that people make every day. The relationship is over. But the way it ended up being portrayed… The momentum behind it was just, just frightening. I’m not whiter than white, by any stretch of the imagination, but…’
Given his sporting achievements, Will Carling ought to have enjoyed huge popularity. Perhaps the public’s coolness was to do with his self-satisfied manner, his flat voice, his clichéed speech – ‘Like I say’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘she was a special lady’. It may also be to do with the way he smiles on one side of his mouth – a manly, patronising smirk. Even as a rugby player he was never loveable. Together, he and Jeremy Guscott were great centres because they complemented each other: Guscott, the rapier, had grace and subtlety; Carling, the blunt instrument, played a more brutish game. He had, as the joke went, the hardest tackle in rugby. In post-match analyses Carling always came across as a complainer, a bit whiney, a bit aloof. He was aware of this, but put it down to his own shyness and insecurity. He was always introspective, he says, a loner.
Now, though, as he talks haltingly about the events of three years ago, his eyes water and, well, I find myself feeling sorry for him. Either he is a very good actor, which seems unlikely, or he was, is, genuinely traumatised by what happened. He tells me that when he saw the tabloid headlines getting worse by the day he felt as though he no longer knew who the real Will Carling was. But crises of identity were not so unusual for him. ‘I’ve seen that stranger since I was 22 [the age when he became the youngest-ever England captain]. A comicbook hero that isn’t me. I didn’t quite become a recluse but I became very private. The only people who come here now are very close friends, otherwise I don’t see many people.’ He declines invitations to dinner if there will be people there he doesn’t know. ‘I can’t go. I don’t want to have to spend two or three hours answering questions as people try and work out what I am really like. It’s so tiring. My heart sinks.’
He doesn’t regret his decision to leave Ali and Henry, but does he at least regret the timing? ‘Well, this is the thing. I could have been really callous and waited until after my testimonial year, after I had made a lot of money and then done it. If I’m meant to be the real shit people say I am, why wouldn’t I have thought that through? Put on a faade for nine months then run with the money?’
Well, maybe he didn’t expect as much fuss to be made about his love life as was made about it. Maybe that was what he didn’t think through. Maybe, as a comic-book hero, a captain who had squired a princess, he believed he was above criticism. But, giving him the benefit of the doubt, why did he feel under so much pressure to take such a drastic step at the time he did? ‘Because I was so unhappy.’ He was so unhappy he couldn’t stay a moment longer? ‘Yeah. You get to the point where you think this is not right. I was very, very unhappy.’
Are we automatically entitled to happiness? Don’t we sometimes have to sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of others? Is that something he thought through? ‘Er, just a bit. Yes.’ He grins ruefully. ‘But… [sotto voce] but is it better to spend years and years and years living with someone you don’t want to live with for the sake of the child? Children are not stupid. Of course they pick up the fact that mum and dad are incredibly unhappy but are putting on a front. Then dad leaves as soon as the child is 18, and when the child asks, “Why?” dad says, “Because I haven’t been happy since you were a baby.” How much guilt is the child going to feel then?’
But still, 11 months old. If he had waited until Henry was three or four, when his mother might have found it easier to cope on her own, might the public reaction not have been different? Carling eyes me narrowly, leans forward and turns off my tape-recorder. After a long sigh he tells me his side of the story. It is quite specific – eye-poppingly so – and the gist of it is that the baby was far from being planned. The word blackmail is used. We have not agreed to anything being off the record, but his turning the recorder off is a canny move. I turn it back on. Why didn’t he say all that at the time? People would have been more sympathetic. ‘Yeah, but Henry is four years old now. At some point, when he is old enough to understand, I will have to sit down with him and explain all this. I don’t want him to have to read about the specifics in the press first. I love him. It would have been a lot easier for me if I’d gone to the papers and told them what I have just told you. People would have sat back and thought, “Oh well, that’s different.” And I have all the proof. Ali’s story is that we were having a perfect relationship and I suddenly got up and went. My story is different. You’ve heard it now: which has the ring of truth? Who ever leaves a perfect relationship? You don’t just decide, “Oh I’m bored now. I don’t care. I’m off.” I can’t be quoted on the details of this because Henry’s feelings are the most important thing. Not mine. Not Ali’s. Not those of the press.’
Given that we did only hear one side of the story, though, does he understand why we were so shocked by it? ‘Yes, absolutely, and it was being stoked by people close to me. I can understand why it made a great story. Maybe you can now understand why I found it incredibly painful to watch it being played out. How come if I really don’t care about Henry… how come I have spent the past three years fighting to see him?’ He has access? ‘Yes I do, but only because I went to the High Court.’
Ali now lives with David Ross, the multi-millionaire co-founder of the Carphone Warehouse. Do Will Carling and Ali still speak? ‘Not a lot. She’s a very unhappy lady. It’s a very sad situation.’
Carling’s mouth is bracketed by grooves so deep they make his face look like a ventriloquist’s dummy’s. They also make him look drawn and doleful. Has he come close to a nervous breakdown? ‘I don’t know. I did get very, very depressed. Very down. But I have some close friends. And whenever people came up to me in the street they were sympathetic. If they had spat in my face and said, “God, you’re a disgrace,” I would have been devastated, and I probably wouldn’t have kept my head above water. As it was it got very close. I felt I was the worst person in the country. That’s how I felt. My self-esteem plummeted. I don’t think it will ever recover.’
He has seen a psychotherapist, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, John Cleese’s wife: did it help? ‘Yes. It helped a bit. It helped me see that I had made a choice and I had to live with it. You said to me earlier that maybe we aren’t meant to be happy. That sometimes we have to make sacrifices. Well, possibly. But. I don’t know. I’m happy now.’
Did he consider leaving the country to go and live, say, in South Africa or Australia, rugby-loving countries where he might have felt more appreciated, less of a pariah? He props his head up on one hand. ‘To do what? I wouldn’t be able to see Henry. I couldn’t just leave him.’
Is Will Carling a moral man? ‘Apparently not.’ But what does he think? Pause. Tight smile. ‘I have the same weaknesses as every one else. But I think I have certain standards, too. When most people think of morality it is in terms of marrying one person and staying married. Never committing adultery. Well, I can’t claim that that applies to me. I’ve been married twice and have had another relationship that has broken down. But, even so, I don’t think I’m the great womaniser I’m portrayed as being. I’ve challenged the tabloids to find women I slept with on tour. It didn’t happen.’
Hang on, was that an admission of adultery? His 1994 marriage to Julia Carling, née Smith, broke down after she gave him ultimatums that he must end his close friendship with the Princess of Wales. The idea of a captain of England having an affair with a future Queen of England proved irresistible to the press. Were they? Weren’t they? Speculation became so intense Carling went into hiding in a flat in Covent Garden. He couldn’t even take a taxi to his door for fear of being followed, and only two people, male friends, were allowed to know his phone number. He has said in the past that he loved the Princess as a friend. He has also said that even if he had had a sexual relationship with her, he would never have dreamed of telling anyone. He has never confirmed that he did – equally, though, he has never really denied it. Are we to assume from this that he did have sexual relations with the Princess? ‘Ach!’ he says, shaking his head peevishly and folding his arms. ‘I’ve been over this so many times and I’ve said, you know… People want to keep bringing it up. Time after time. How many times do I have to say it? She was just a good friend.’
So that is a denial? ‘Absolutely! I don’t know why people think I haven’t denied it. It’s like, “For goodness sake. She – was – just – a – good – friend.” I felt privileged to know her. She was good fun. End of story.’
James Hewitt once told me in an interview that, before her infamous Panorama appearance, the Princess struck a deal with Martin Bashir: he was allowed to ask about Hewitt on condition that he would not ask about Carling, because she was negotiating her divorce settlement at the time. Does that surprise Carling? ‘That’s what Hewitt thinks, is it? Well, I don’t think James Hewitt is in a position to make theories about anyone. I have no idea about any such deal.’
At the time of their divorce, Julia Carling said of Diana, Princess of Wales, ‘It would be easy to say she’s ruined my marriage. But it takes two to tango, and I blame Will for getting involved in the first place.’ Why would she say this? ‘Yeah, but I don’t think Julia was in a great frame of mind at the time. If she did insinuate anything, she was out of order. I think Julia got a bit carried away about trying to have a go at the Princess. It wasn’t on. I understand she was unhappy but that wasn’t great. Not great. Anyway, this whole subject is dangerous ground because the Princess is no longer around to put her side of the case. We should be more respectful.’
Quite so. As Carling would say, it’s out of order. In 1988, after his first game as captain, when England beat Australia 28-19, Carling walked back to the changing rooms and burst into tears of relief. He cried again, this time into his socks, apparently, after England lost to France in the World Cup in 1995. In touch with his emotions then? ‘Very. I weep easily, just not in public. When Jonah Lomu was doing This Is Your Life his little sister, six years old, came on and said, “I love you, Jonah,” and I cried then. I cried when I watched Gladiator, too, that bit where the servant brings him back the miniature statues of his dead wife and son.’ He smiles the one-sided smile. ‘Doesn’t quite fit the image, though, does it? As I say, just not… Not in front of people. It dates back to school.’
When, at the age of seven, Carling was sent to board at Terra Nova, a prep school in Cheshire, he would crawl under the blankets at night to cry. He soon settled in, though, and even admits he became a bit of a bully. ‘When I first went there I knew I wouldn’t see my parents for three months. But my parents had no choice because, being an Army family, we moved house practically every year. I would never contemplate sending a child to boarding school at seven. It was hard. But I think people do use it as an excuse later in life.’ (Perhaps his therapist has suggested his behaviour in recent years points to a fear of being alone – one which often springs from childhood experiences of being abandoned, or living with the prospect of abandonment. Just a thought.)
Carling’s talents on the rugby field were spotted when, at 13, he went on to Sedbergh, a very rugby-minded public school on the edge of the Lake District. He was made to play for the year above his, which made him unpopular with his contemporaries. ‘I hated it. Hated it. I was terrified. Every game I was like, “Oh God.”‘ He, nevertheless, became captain of the First XV and carried on playing at Durham University, where he went on an Army scholarship and from which he graduated with a pass – ‘My degree was a joke. No one ever got below 2:2 in the Psychology Department and I didn’t even get a third. I think they are still debating whether I should have had a degree at all.’ While at Durham he joined Harlequins, and was selected to play for England. He was due to follow his father into the Army, as an officer in the Royal Regiment of Wales, but bought himself out for £8,000 when the Army’s demands clashed with his England training schedule. Those still being the days of amateurism, he had to make a living, so he founded Insight, a company offering business leaders advice on motivation (the company later ran into financial difficulties). The seeds of his conflicts of interest with English rugby were sown.
His father, Bill, a lieutenant-colonel in the Army Air Corps who had played rugby for Bath, was something of a martinet. ‘He is quite military. I remember when I was 13, Dad told my brother Marcus and me, “If you ever get into trouble with bullies, find out who the leader is and hit him as hard as you can in the face.”‘ In a sense, this advice stood him in good stead on the international rugby field – where his courage in taking on big brutal forwards with misshapen faces was legendary. But, he says disingenuously, he cannot understand why people still assume he must also be a hard man away from the rugby pitch. ‘They say, “Obviously I wouldn’t have a go at you, Will,” and I just look at them and think, “Why?”‘
He never shied from confrontation off the field, though, especially where RFU committee men were concerned – he once grabbed a senior administrator by the throat, and had to be restrained by Rob Andrew. He has had epic spats with, among others, the England manager Jack Rowell, the Lions manager Fran Cotton and even his mentor, the former Harlequins coach Dick Best. His career at the club ended in acrimony when Carling led moves to replace Best with Andy Keast, whom he also then fell out with. In recent weeks he has been accused of leading a conspiracy to oust Clive Woodward, the current England manager. He doesn’t see it this way, but, still, poisonous atmospheres do seem to follow him around. Wasn’t he always the common denominator in these disputes? ‘For sure. I am very difficult. I’ve never denied it. That’s what you had to be to make England successful. That was my strength and my weakness. I’m not a politician and I’m not a diplomat. I was 22 with a burning ambition. I was a bull in a china shop.’
Temperamentally, Carling reminds me of Geoffrey Boycott, of whom Dr Anthony Clare once said, ‘I thought no man was an island, until I met Geoffrey Boycott.’ Boycott never cultivated friends within his sport, indeed he seemed to go out of his way to make enemies. Like Boycott, Carling always blames everyone else. A close acquaintance of his suggests to me that Carling has a ruthless, almost delusional capacity for reinventing the past. Perversely, though, the main lesson he seems to have drawn from his therapy sessions was that he spends too much time trying to please other people, and not enough on his own happiness. He discovered that, deep down, he always felt guilty for everything. Or so he says: contradictorily, he also realised that he had developed a system whereby he would stop speaking to friends if they notched up a certain number of black marks in his book – unpunctuality, his pet hate, presumably being an example. This was the way his mother, Pam, had behaved with him. She rarely explained why she was angry or upset.
Though this self-analysis – helped by professional analysis – doesn’t deal with the possible contributions of what some might regard as his selfishness, immaturity and self-pity, it does bear out his claim that he is more sensitive than people assume him to be. He contemplates daily his own mortality, for example. ‘There are books of philosophy all over the house. I’m fascinated at the moment with religion, especially Buddhism. How you enjoy life. If you can wake up every morning and accept that one day you will die, that gives you strength and energy and you enjoy your life more. I remind myself every day. It sounds morbid but it’s the reverse.’ Carling squares his shoulders. ‘I was brought up Church of England but now I find myself asking how can you have a forgiving God who damns you for eternity in hell if you do anything wrong? How loving is that?’
How indeed. The labrador has gone to sleep in front of the fire, and, upstairs, Jack has awoken. Will goes out and returns grinning a minute later, with Jack in his arms. ‘He hasn’t got my chin,’ he says. ‘But he has got my distended belly. I bought him his first shoes the other day, and he was so excited about them. He just kept walking up and down the kitchen. It was a lovely sight.’