New Faces for '94 / Rugby Union: Catt poised to bounce on an England place: Bath's South African-born back has marked his territory. Steve Bale on a man who is here to stay

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The Independent Online
MIKE CATT'S tale is one of the most delightfully extraordinary in sport, a rugby-playing holiday in Britain having turned during 1993 into a full-blown challenge for the senior England team. If he does not make it in 1994, put your money on '95 along with the game's most celebrated punter, Stuart Barnes.

'I believe Catt will play for England within two years,' Barnes, the senior stand-off at Catt's club, Bath, said. By which post-World Cup time, one presumes, Barnes and his age-old England rival Rob Andrew, both now 31, will have gone to pasture.

When he turned up at the Recreation Ground, Catt, 22, was the man from nowhere - if thus we can describe Port Elizabeth, the industrial city in the eastern Cape where the England A cricket team have been playing. So Catt 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, pack metaphorically on his back, for the land of his mother.

In fact 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. When things worked out as they did, the abandonment of one aspiration - to play for South Africa - in favour of another - to play for England - was easy.

'My mind was made up quite a long time ago,' Catt said. 'I am not going anywhere. I am committed to one country. My rugby-playing future is in England and I will play my rugby here for the next 10 or 12 years before I think about perhaps going back to South Africa to settle down.'

When he looked up an uncle in Stroud, his immediate ambition was no more than to have a good time. However, Catt soon became the one Gloucester let out of the bag. When he arrived, in October 1992, he telephoned Kingsholm and, when there was no reply, tried Bath and was put in touch with Gareth Chilcott. Oh yes he did.

From the moment Catt made his First Division debut last February - at Gloucester of all places - he looked the part. He toured Australia with England Under-21 last summer. His versatile ability to fill in at centre, full-back and wing as well as his preferred position has kept him in the Bath team this season, and he appeared for the South- West, England A and England Emerging Players against the All Blacks.

Barnes, for one, is not surprised. 'Mike has the prime requisite, which is pace,' he said. 'He has acceleration, a cool head and a commitment.' And by the way, he can kick, pass and tackle with the best of them, and as it happens is also now the possessor of a British passport.

'If I'd gone to Gloucester I've no doubt I'd be back home by now, and even when I went to Bath I had no intention of staying for long,' Catt said. 'To be honest, I didn't know anything about Bath's reputation but I soon found out once I started training with Guscott, Barnes and all the rest. When Jack asked me to stay, in the end I couldn't really say no.'

Jack is the Bath coach, Jack Rowell, whom Catt credits not simply for his persuasive powers but also for giving him the necessary representative push. 'It's all happened so fast I still can't quite believe it, or at least I didn't until I went with the under-21s to Australia,' he said. 'I mean, I could never have imagined I'd play three times against New Zealand in a year, could I?' In fact it was three times in a month.

Having got this far this quickly, Catt hardly has time to think about what might have been had he remained in Port Elizabeth. 'I think I had the talent when I was playing in South Africa but I wasn't able really to let it out or express myself.

'It was quite different playing for Eastern Province, because in those days they weren't one of the better sides and were always losing, so we weren't really noticed. Not being an Afrikaner didn't help either, but these days things have improved there.'

The irony is that but for injuries, especially those that have kept Jeremy Guscott and Stuart Barnes out for much of this season, Catt could well still be a Bath reserve. 'If everyone was fit I would probably be sitting on the bench or playing second-team rugby,' he said.

'But I've had my chances, which I think for the most part I've taken. Actually I've had a couple of bad games lately and needed to put in a lot of work. The Wasps cup tie was the first time in six or seven games that I'd left the field really happy.'

Given he is a South African, however Anglicised, Catt's aim for '94 is all too obvious: a place on England's tour of the Republic in May and June: 'It would be absolute magic.'

Eastern Province, back home in Port Elizabeth, will be the penultimate fixture. As Catt is proving one of the jewels of our domestic season, he has a genuine chance of being there. And that really would be Catt getting the cream. .

(Photograph omitted)