Catt determined to hold the centre ground

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The Independent Online

Perhaps it was Clare Balding's feminine wiles which persuaded Mike Catt to take the stand, but someone had to front up for England in the immediate aftermath of their Dublin nightmare a fortnight ago. With La Balding's microphone under his nose seconds after the final whistle, Catt did not flinch. "The Irish wanted it more than us," he said, and if the verdict had one or two England fans scratching their heads, it at least had the priceless virtue of honesty.

Australians take note: you can cast someone else in the role of whingeing Pom, and not just because Catt was born in South Africa. With 53 caps and counting, he is a bona fide Englishman, more than able to speak for the squad. The BBC want to get more women tuned into rugby, hence the new face on the touchline at Lansdowne Road. As for Catt, he was there to win a rugby match. Grand Slam or Extra B's, he treats them all the same. A couple of European games for Bath in the interim may have eased the pain, but the considered view is little altered. "We were poor on the day," Catt said, "and Ireland were better than us, full stop. Tactically, we knew how they were going to play, but they kicked very well, and forced us into making mistakes. It's no point us moaning about it, we've just got to get on with it."

And on days like those, there is the domino effect of one mistake leading to another. There was nothing unusual, for example, in Catt, at inside centre, occasionally switching with Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half. Only what had previously been as seamless as Savile Row's finest, suddenly looked clumsy when a Wilkinson kick was charged down. The tactics won't change against the Wallabies. "It gives Jonny a bit of breathing space," Catt said, "and the same for me. We've got two ball-players there, two decision-makers, who can play at 10 and 12."

So with neither Slam nor shame to show for the experience, the England squad were due to reconvene last Monday. Only the session did not happen. The official reason from the RFU was: there was no reason. "We were just told we didn't have to meet up," said Catt. Instead, on Wednesday, he learned via Teletext the 26 names of those who will definitely gather at the Pennyhill Park hotel tomorrow morning to prepare for Australia. Among them, Henry Paul, the rugby league wizard who briefly played alongside Catt for Bath five years ago.

"I think it's the same as with Jason Robinson last season," said Catt. "Henry will be brought into the squad, just to get a feel of how it all works, and to educate him, rather than just shove him straight into international level. Otherwise, it would be a bit unfair on the individual player, and also unfair on other people in the side. It's more of a learning curve for Henry, but it's a chance he can grab with both hands. If he gets it right, you never know what could happen. He's a talented footballer. He's got a good brain on him and I can't see it being too long before he gets involved fully."

Paul's second coming in union with Gloucester has initially been at inside centre, Catt's England position. "There's nothing wrong with competition, nothing whatsoever," Catt said. "He'll be a good inside centre, and a good outside centre. And a good 10. He's one of those who could play in a few positions, it's just a question of which one he adapts to quickest." Paul made three appearances for Bath in the autumn of 1996, the final one a remarkable 76-7 win over Bristol, when Catt scored one try and Paul two. "I remember him as very talented," said Catt, "and a top bloke. But he's learning a new game now. Rugby league is completely different. It was all right for Jason [Robinson] on the wing, because wing is more or less the same in league or union. When you start playing in the centre, it's a lot harder to adjust to the Laws. Henry's proved himself in the league set-up. And one on one, to be honest, you'd put your money on Henry Paul to beat probably anybody around. He makes his tackles, he's a very good player."

Catt has already had six cracks at the Wallabies. Only the first and last were victories – in the 1995 World Cup quarter-final and this time last year at Twickenham. There might have been more during the Lions tour, but a calf injury restricted Catt's involvement to a frustratingly brief 40 minutes against the hosts' A team. "I love playing against the Aussies," he said. "It's always a great game. Not dirty, but hard, and skilful." Nathan Grey and Daniel Herbert, two ball-playing bruisers in the Wallaby midfield, should continue that tradition. "It obviously helps them to have two big, physical lads in the centre, which can get their back row into the game."

In addition to the physical challenge, is it better for England not to be favourites, to play with less of the onus on them to direct the game? "After Ireland, people may view us as underdogs," Catt said. "Don't get too deep, though. I'm a basic bloke. They're world champions, and we want to beat them. I just want to beat them."