Rugby union: New role for Catt without a home

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The Independent Online
ONE OF these fine days, Mike Catt will play for England in his optimum position of outside centre. He may have to wait for the mountains to melt and the seas to burn, however. Having already given Catt his head at stand- off and full-back this season, Clive Woodward and the rest of the red rose top brass yesterday saddled him with the right wing role for this weekend's Triple Crown match with Ireland at Twickenham.

The fact that the position is a complete mystery to the undeniably gifted but chronically inconsistent utility back from Bath does not concern Woodward in the slightest. "I'm determined to get the best available footballers on the pitch," he pronounced, equally unfazed by his own apparent inability to select the same side for consecutive international matches. Barring an unlikely last-minute rapprochement with Adedayo Adebayo and Dean Ryan, who find themselves dropped despite sharing in the record victory at Murrayfield 11 days ago, England will play their eighth fixture of the season on Saturday with their eighth different line-up.

Catt wears the No 14 shirt against an Irish side on the brink of a first whitewash since 1992 while Austin Healey, another non-specialist wing but rather more used to the peculiar demands of the position, shifts to the left flank in place of Adebayo. With three first-choicers - David Rees, Kyran Bracken and Phil Vickery - not considered because of injury, the only other change sees Tony Diprose, of Saracens, restored to the back row for Ryan.

The last time England took anything like as big a selection liberty against the Irish was in 1983 when David Trick, another Bath back and a specialist right wing, was ordered to play out of position on the left. Ollie Campbell, every bit as sublime a strategist as he was a kicker, tormented the poor soul so relentlessly that, rumour has it, he went straight to the confessional to beg for forgiveness.

Fortunately for Catt's peace of mind, he has no memory of that cringingly painful day at Lansdowne Road. All the same, Woodward's gamble left him visibly non-plussed. "I've never started a game on the right wing at any level of rugby," he admitted, "and my only experience of the position was 40 minutes' worth at Orrell in 1994, when Tony Swift twanged a hamstring during a club match and I came off the bench to fill in.

"I think the defensive aspect of the switch will prey on my mind more than the attacking side. I'm always confident of achieving things with ball in hand; I hope I can read a game as well as the next guy, so there's no reason why I shouldn't get involved in different areas of the pitch. If I can make the same sort of impact as Austin, who has been using his rugby instincts to pop up in good positions all over the field, I'll be happy."

It has been a season of mind-bending ups and downs for the 26-year-old South African exile. Convinced that a run at outside centre would be the making of a mercurial talent, Woodward picked him there for the first Test of the campaign against Australia in November. Alex King's knee injury forced Catt into an 11th-hour move to stand-off, however, and a subsequent bout of concussion suffered against South Africa, allied to Jeremy Guscott's return to fitness, effectively slammed the midfield door in his face.

Woodward recalled Catt to full-back, where he had not performed for two years, when England travelled to France for the start of the Five Nations in February. The decision rebounded violently. "I don't think many of the England team performed that day and I certainly didn't," the player said yesterday. "Clive wanted us to play a handling game, I kicked a lot of ball away and they dropped me for it.

"Still, I'm back in the side now and that's the most important thing. I have no idea whether this is a one-off, or whether Clive feels I can build a career for myself on the right wing. To be quite honest with you, I've given up trying to work this game out. I just take it as it comes these days."

Quite where the repositioning of Catt leaves a clutch of ambitious specialist English wings is anyone's guess. It can safely be stated that Adebayo has a bright international career behind him - a case of "Adios, Ade" it seems - and with Rees and Tony Underwood on the casualty list, the selectors have been denied two proven performers. But what of Newcastle's Jim Naylor, Tom Beim of Sale and Leon Lloyd of Leicester? From their point of view, the latest smoke signals from Twickenham are blowing in the wrong direction.

Ryan, the Newcastle captain recalled for England at Murrayfield for the first time in six years, will also be less than chuffed at losing his place so quickly. Diprose has been in spectacular nick of late, though, and fully deserves a chance to cement his place in Woodward's World Cup thinking.

ENGLAND (v Ireland, Twickenham, Saturday): M Perry; M Catt, J Guscott (all Bath), W Greenwood, A Healey (both Leicester); P Grayson, M Dawson (both Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps; capt), A Diprose (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: P De Glanville (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), S Benton (Gloucester), G Rowntree, D West (both Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), D Ryan (Newcastle).