Catt determined to make the most of his big chance

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The ghosts of World Cups past no longer haunt Mike Catt, despite the best efforts of those who, like the gin-soaked Major in Fawlty Towers, refuse to forgive and forget. Within minutes of Catt's name appearing on a full-strength England teamsheet for the first time in almost exactly two years, the spectre of Mr Jonah Lomu Esq was raised from the freaks' graveyard of sporting history. "Ah, Jonah," said the South African-born centre from Bath, an ironic grin spreading from ear to ear. "I'm grateful to him. He put me at the top of the tree."

Yes, and it took the Cape Town fire brigade five hours to lure him back down again. Lomu did unmentionable things to Catt on that button-bright June afternoon at Newlands in 1995, running over him and through him and round him for fun. Catt was not alone in his humiliation - poor Tony Underwood suffered such desperate indignities that his torment was later memorialised in a television advertisement for pizza - but the enduring image of that semi-final against the All Blacks is of a frail, part-time full-back hanging off Jonah like a single strand of stubble on Desperate Dan's chin.

Yet it was here in New South Wales four years later that Catt's long conundrum of a career seemed to crumble at the foundations. Having nursed Jonny Wilkinson through a Six Nations' Championship apprenticeship - the grown-up played at outside-half, the kid at inside-centre - the roles were reversed, once and for all, during the summer, when England pitched up in Sydney for the Centenary Test against the Wallabies. The visitors went down by four tries to two, and Catt suddenly found himself among the dead-beats as the 1999 World Cup edged nearer.

It was a painful time. The Twickenham crowd, never completely sold on Catt as a play-making tactician of true international quality, booed him on more than one occasion - generally, the champers-and-hampers set are too sozzled to castigate anyone - and as the tournament progressed through the autumn, the clouds continued to close in. Wilkinson and Paul Grayson were the outside-halves in Clive Woodward's thoughts; Will Greenwood, Jeremy Guscott and Phil de Glanville were contesting the centre positions. Catt was granted a cannon-fodder run against the rib-rearrangers from Fiji - thanks a lot, Clive - but to all intents and purposes, he was England's nothing man.

With Guscott and De Glanville now in retirement, Woodward made something of Catt again by including him in his 2000 Six Nations mix. Catt seized the opportunity as a starving man might seize a loaf of bread. With Wilkinson immersed in the first of his purple patches and Austin Healey adding a new dimension to England's attacking game, the Bath man revelled in the freedom of the piece. There was, however, a temporary air about his inclusion, and when the odd injury problem started to kick in the following year, Woodward moved Greenwood to his optimum position of inside-centre and told Catt he could stay home and count his half-century of caps.

Since when, things have been no more than so-so. Until, that is, last weekend in Brisbane, when Catt emerged for the second half of a quarter-final fast slipping away from England and immediately set about dashing Welsh hopes of glory against the neon walls of the Suncorp Stadium.

"I've been around the game most of my life, and I can't remember seeing one bloke turn a match on its head like that," said Rob Andrew, the former red rose stand-off and another of the white-shirted lightweights marmalised by Lomu in '95.

So what did Catt do, exactly? Heaven knows, few would put him alongside a Lynagh or a Barnes - still less an Ella or a Porta - in the pantheon of tactical maestros; no one who witnessed his ham-fisted performance for Bath in a big Heineken Cup quarter-final tie against Llanelli a couple of seasons back would accuse him of having a strategic brain cell in his head. But six days ago, he made all the right decisions at all the right times and performed so many simple acts so perfectly that in the space of half an hour he had transformed a 3-10 deficit into a 25-10 advantage.

"There was no pressure on me," he explained this week. "I'm enjoying every minute of my time here, probably because I've been out of the mix for a long time and bring a different perspective to my rugby these days."

This new outlook, more relaxed and decidedly less po-faced, is the direct result of a harrowing few days last year, when Catt's baby daughter, Evie, fell seriously ill and underwent cardiac surgery.

"Unsurprisingly, I now take the view that there are more important things in life than a game of rugby," he continued. "This is a fickle sport, anyway, although it's given me so much. I've been written off in some quarters for years now, and while that kind of thing got to me in the past, I decided during the summer that I would let all that go and simply concentrate on my goal of playing in a third World Cup. Even though I hadn't been included in the various squads and gettogethers, Clive had kept me informed and left me with a clear idea of what I had to do to stand a chance of selection. It was about fitness, primarily - I'd been playing injured for too long and it was doing me no favours. When I returned to the England set-up, I returned fresh and happy and totally enthusiastic about my rugby."

What goes around, comes around. In this city four years ago, when Catt was weighed down by the cares of the world, Wilkinson was a month out of his teens and, if not exactly ablaze with reckless abandon - Jonny doesn't do reckless - at least smouldering with the optimism of youth. Now, 24 hours before a World Cup semi-final of epic potential, it is Catt who is touched with the lightness of being. "I think Jonny handles pressure exceptionally well," he said. "But maybe there is a little staleness in the team as a whole, so if I can freshen things up a little, fine."

Over the last few days, no England player - not Martin Johnson nor Matthew Dawson, not the eternally buoyant Steve Thompson, not even that one-man study in self-belief, Lawrence Dallaglio - has come close to challenging Catt as a positive thinker. As one player said: "It's been a long road for us this year. The fact that Mike is so up about everything has more than a little to do with the fact that he hasn't been stuck in camp for the best part of six months."

To many observers, it is far too late in the day to expect one player to rekindle the dying embers of an England campaign almost extinguished by the Welsh, of all people. But there are precedents. Two of the four previous World Cup-winners, the 1991 Wallabies and the 1995 Springboks, made significant selection calls during the knock-out stages - Australia replaced Jeff Miller with Troy Coker for their semi-final with New Zealand; South Africa shifted Mark Andrews to No 8 and dropped Rudi Straeuli for their semi against France.

Catt is not a particularly enthusiastic student of rugby history - if he ever had an interest in the annals, dear old Jonah Whatsisname quickly ended it. But if a man who never truly captured the hearts of his adoptive nation with his performances at joyless Twickenham should finally do so on the sun-baked fields of Sydney, the tale will be told as long as rugby is played. And the hero really will find himself at the top of the tree.