Fear of the Catt attack increases

FIVE NATIONS FOCUS: Bath's versatile playmaker is making himself at hom e as England's last line of defence. Steve Bale spoke to him
Click to follow
There he was lounging around his uncle's place in Gloucestershire, bored with his holiday back in the mother's country, wondering what to do next. "How about having a go for the England World Cup team back home in South Africa?" a mischievous voic e whispered to Mike Catt.

And so it came to pass. Sixteen months on, Catt, the South African who just fancied a game while he was here, is about to win his fifth cap against France at Twickenham this afternoon and - thanks to his startling versatility as much as his specific ability as a full-back - is as certain as anyone of a place in England's World Cup squad.

OK, so most of this is fantasy. Indeed, making the England team was not even a fantasy when Catt decided to break his holiday. All he wanted was some social rugby, although he did set his sights high by joining Bath, and to begin with the second team wasas much as he expected or wanted.

Since then, Catt's tale has been one of the most delightfully extraordinary in sport. These very pages proclaimed last January: "If he does not make it in 1994, put your money on '95." Well he made it, twice as a replacement, in 1994 and in '95 he appears to have made it for good.

This has been Paul Hull's misfortune and Catt, through his own experience, is sufficiently aware of the role of chance and mischance to take nothing for granted. "I suppose I'm now finally beginning to realise what has happened, but since I started playing in England it's been a whirl of different things, one after another," he said.

"I've never really had time to sit down and ask myself exactly what has happened over the past couple of years, but I guess it's pretty amazing. Seeing myself in the frame for the World Cup is a dream come true, my ambition since I was a kid, but I couldhardly have imagined it would involve England."

Catt, 23, is a South African born and bred, played for Eastern Province at schools and under-21 level, and was good enough to have six games for the senior provincial side before setting off for England in 1992. On the other hand, his mother is from Kent, Michael's two elder brothers were born in Britain, and even his South African-born father holds a British passport.

So, now, does young Mike, and when things worked out as they did, the abandonment of one aspiration - to become a Springbok - in favour of another - to play for England - was easy. "In my youth, my aim was simply to play international rugby and the fact was that, with apartheid in South Africa and the sporting sanctions, the Springboks couldn't play.

"It would have been wonderful to play for them, but for all those years it wasn't feasible and now that it has worked out another way I have no regrets whatsoever. I still have an interest, but I wouldn't go round the world following the Springboks or anything like that. I have made an absolute commitment."

Catt was the one Gloucester let out of the bag. The story goes that he telephoned Kingsholm and, when there was no reply, tried Bath and was put in touch with Gareth Chilcott, then a player, now a coach. From the moment Catt made his First Division debutin February 1993 - at Gloucester of all places - he looked the part.

He toured Australia with England Under-21 that summer. His ability to fill in at centre, full-back and wing, as well as the outside-half position he then preferred, kept him in the Bath team even before Stuart Barnes retired. Last summer, he was invaluable as a utility back when England toured South Africa.

This season, though, has turned out to be more difficult, or at any rate more complicated. Catt's assumption of Barnes's old place may have been preordained, but he had not expected to become England's full-back, and now he is torn between the requirements of club and country.

"I've spent as much of my career at full-back as at outside-half, but the last time I played there regularly was for Eastern Province B three years ago, and I've only ever had one second-team game there for Bath," he said. "Now that I'm full-back for England I'd rather concentrate on that position, but Bath need an outside-half and don't need a full-back, so there's no reason for the club to make a change."

Jack Rowell, the England manager, is on record wishing Bath would give Catt more experience in his international position but, whatever his new-found preference, Catt himself is philosophical about the demands being made of him.

"It doesn't particularly concern me, but there are things I have to get right and the more experience I have the better it will be," he said. "I'd like to have a few easier games at full-back, but Jack hasn't said anything to me about having to play there [for Bath] if I'm going to be the England full-back."

Catt took his opportunity with a definitive performance of attacking running after replacing the injured Hull against Canada in December. The two tries he scored then were the outward and visible sign of the Anglo-South African's special talent, though even after playing against Ireland in Dublin a fortnight ago, his defensive quality has not been tested. The French will not be so accommodating.

While all this has been going on, his hectic schedule managed to fit in an appearance before a Rugby Football Union inquiry into his assertion that he had been paid to play for Eastern Province, a storm that blew over when the RFU came up with evidence that the payments were flat-rate expenses disbursed to every Eastern Province player.

Quite illegal of course, but enough for Catt to be exonerated and permitted to pursue his new international career. This still has far to run, far beyond this year's World Cup for sure, and even his original intention of returning home once his playing days are done is now less certain.

Catt is well set up in marketing, the international rugby player's favourite, and if he is to capitalise on his fame as amateurism unravels, he will do better by staying where he is. "It all depends what happens on the career side," he said.

"Obviously my rugby is the major factor; it would be pointless making a name for myself over here, then going back to South Africa and starting again. There again, anything could happen." Which Mike Catt, from his weird and wonderful experience in English rugby, knows better than anyone.