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Rugby Matters: ’57 old farts’ and one nauseous reporter

Will Carling

REMARKABLY it’s exactly 25 years since Will Carling’s relatively innocent quip about the 57 old farts at the RFU caused a mass venting, if you will excuse the phrase, and sense of humour failure at Twickenham, a process that laughably resulted in his sacking and then reinstatement as England captain all in the space of two days.

It was on the evening of May 4, 1995 that Channel 4’s documentary Fair Game hit the airwaves after a blizzard of stories that morning referencing his use of the phrase 57 old farts, a comment that he insists he made after he had taken his microphone off at the conclusion of the interview but was nonetheless picked up by interviewer Greg Dyke’s mike.

That set in motion a sorry train of events that saw him sacked on the Saturday after the Pilkington Cup Final at Twickenham between Bath and Wasps had been totally upstaged by the escalating row, peace meetings which finished at an England World Cup training camp and finally an embarrassing climb down by the RFU on Monday.

That Bank Holiday the rest of the country was celebrating the 50th anniversary of VE day but in the corridors of power at Twickenham the mood was dark and vengeful. They had another battle on their hands.

If anybody at the RFU had an ounce of irony or indeed self-awareness in their body they would have realised their precipitate old buffers’ over-reaction justified, in every conceivable way, Carling’s mild description.

Only one RFU top brass emerged with any credit – the president Denis Easby, a retired solicitor – who spoke at length with Carling on the Sunday and again on the Monday and realised that he and the England players had many grievances that were not being addressed properly.

Nor had the full circumstances of the 57 old farts comment been properly conveyed to the five-man committee that had hastily been convened and made the decision to sack Carling. England coach Jack Rowell incidentlaly had no say in the matter. It was Easby who brokered the peace which was announced on the Monday afternoon with Carling apologising and being reinstated as captain. The skipper insisted that Easby would be very welcome to attend any of England’s forthcoming England training sessions in South Arica.

In many ways the ’57 old farts’ comment was a non-story and with the safe distance that 25 years offers I can reveal why one leading paper, famed for its rugby coverage, initially declined to cover the story despite being in a position to scoop the pack by 24 hours. So quickly did it then become a cause célèbre that we were then forced to back track and pile in with everybody else in later editions.

To elaborate, back then I wrote a weekly column for the Daily Telegraph – About Rugby we called it, a precursor of Rugby Matters – and on the Tuesday that week I had phoned the Channel 4 Press office for a few titbits from the interview hoping at best for an eight paragraph column lead.

It was their first such query apparently and the helpful press office offered to fax over a copy of the transcript and running order of the show to Canary Wharf to pluck out a few little nuggets.

The interview, with all due respect to those concerned was no great shakes. There was one good line about everybody benefitting from the England team except the players and the tart little comment from Will about the 57 old farts.

The latter had legs as we say but nobody on the back bench expressed much interest and to be fair calling the RFU committee old farts was something of a cliché by then. The fans all did it, we in the media did it and I can assure you – having supped with a number of the old farts who proved to be very good contacts after the third pint – many of them rather enjoyed the sobriquet and played up to it.

Still, I knew that the more hardcore leaders of the RFU – those out to get Carling and his professional wannabees – might see this as an opening so for the first and only time in my career I marched up to the late great David Welch – my sports editor – and pointed out the relevant passage with some vigour.

David carefully studied the entire fax for ten minutes or more – I had only seen that intense look on his face previoulsy when he scoured the Racing Post searching for a winner – and then he pronounced his verdict. To paraphrase: It was just a joke, a quip, it was an off the record comment and we didn’t even know for sure it was definitely going to be aired. And what happened to rugby’s famous sense of humour. No, he was not prepared to run with it.

And we didn’t. I phoned the press officer back apologetically and at the end of the call he asked me whether I minded if he pushed it around to other ‘outlets’ as he had made the effort to dig everything out. I jest not. Some 36 hours later – the Thursday morning – the proverbial hit the fan and it all got a little hysterical and surreal.

The thing is that in just about every respect bar one David was totally right and the older I get the more I respect him for holding back. It was a complete nonsense story and a bit of a stitch up if we are absolutely honest. And as anybody who knows Will at all will confirm, it was exactly the kind of joshing quip he would make, especially if he thought the interview had ended. Life is just too short to be monstering sports stars for what at the very worst was a certain clumsiness with words when trying to lighten the mood.

And even after the story broke all the RFU needed to do was reply in kind, something along the lines of “Along with all England fans celebrating our third Grand Slam in five years we had a chuckle at Will’s comment. Rest assured we will be trying to fix up a sponsorship with Heinz Baked Beans asap”. Or some such nonsense.

But no, the top brass went for the jugular – it was the little window of opportunity they had been waiting for to get at England’s most successful ever captain.

That’s how warped it had all got by then. And so it all kicked off. And that’s why it was, in the final analysis a bonafide story, and not a media invention. It was however almost nothing to do with Carling’s little dig and schoolboy humour. It was the moment the gloves came off in the amateurism-professionalism debate.

When the RFU climb down came that Bank Holiday after- noon the joke was squarely on them, they were the big losers. Along with the About Rugby Column and its author who was by then licking his wounds in the pub!

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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