Rugby Union: Not so cool Catt swings from the brilliant to the banal

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The Independent Online
WHATEVER YOU may have thought of Mike Catt's performance as England's replacement stand-off on Saturday, his display after the match was even more extraordinary.

There is no doubt that Catt's failure to convert Jeremy Guscott's 69th- minute try was the moment England put themselves in serious danger of losing the Cook Cup. The extra two points would have left Australia needing to score a try to win. As it was, John Eales' subsequent penalty, gave the Wallabies a lead they were able to defend for the final few minutes.

But Catt did not know that. Afterwards, he admitted that he had not known the score when he stepped up to take the conversion. Now you might say that an appreciation of the possible consequences of his kick could not possibly have made him try any harder than he actually did, but it still seems peculiar, to say the least, that the team's playmaker should not carry such things in his head, simply as a matter of tradecraft.

It is not surprising that Catt should have been reluctant to discuss his failure afterwards, but his blustering refusal to accept other people's assessments of its significance seemed a further demonstration of the mental fragility that affects his game at the highest level. ``Let's hear some positive points, boys,'' he said. ``Positive, positive, positive.'' But we were there to talk about a defeat, and its causes, and to hear him protesting that he had enjoyed the game, and had been happy with his own part in it, seemed, at best, inappropriate.

To Catt's critics, of whom there are many, the miss came as no surprise. His natural talent has never been in doubt, but his inability to produce it at the relevant moments has prevented him from becoming a convincing heir to Rob Andrew's No 10 shirt. His display, after replacing the injured Paul Grayson in the 33rd minute of the game, was a typical cocktail of fleeting brilliance and banal error.

His first contribution was a raking kick which found touch seven metres from the Australian line. The Wallabies responded to the resulting pressure by sending Phil Kearns and George Gregan to halt Phil de Glanville with maximum force, and a couple of seconds later you could see that the consequences of that crunching impact were on Catt's mind as he fumbled a simple take with Stephen Larkham looming across his eyeline.

A minute before half-time his 38-metre penalty put England level at 3-3, but four minutes after the resumption he wasted Matt Dawson's enterprising break by passing to ground. Within moments, trying to make amends, he was off on a sparkling break of his own, looping out to the left touchline on the Wallabies' 22 but, finding himself isolated, immediately ruined the effect by passing the ball straight into the midriff of an astonished touch judge, whose only resemblance to an England player was that he happened to be wearing white shorts.

Another long touch-finder seemed to have settled Catt's nerves again, and he gave England the lead after 50 minutes with a second penalty. But between the two three-pointers with which Eales took his side back into the lead at 9-6, the England stand-off's dreadfully underhit punt wasted a fine opportunity to relieve the pressure which had been building ominously since left winger Joe Roff's coruscating break in the 52nd minute suddenly changed the balance of play.

Catt played an important linking role in Guscott's admirable try, but his failure to land the extra points, from a perfectly kickable position, offered the Australians a glimmer of hope towards the end of a deeply unspectacular match. ``I must admit I did think about that,'' Eales said later, with a hint of reluctance. ``It really did keep the door open for us.''

``I didn't miss it on purpose,'' Catt said afterwards, somewhat plaintively, and, of course, no one would accuse him of doing anything other than his best. In a match characterised by poor technique and worse decision-making on both sides, it was unfortunate that his should be the crucial lapse.

But the real problem is Clive Woodward's, and it is hard to see where, with Grayson injured and the two young pretenders, Alex King and Jonny Wilkinson, in disfavour, the England coach is going to find a solution in time for Saturday's meeting with the world champions, at which Twickenham's spectators - not to mention the satellite TV audience - deserve an altogether better show.

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