Catt latest victim of Woodward's ruthless style

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The Independent Online

Good leadership can take many forms. It can be quirky and cruel, as the great revolutionary general Pancho Villa frequently demonstrated. Once he was irritated by one of his troops bellowing drunkenly beneath his balcony during an interview with an influential American journalist. Embarrassed, the great man drew his revolver and shot the offender neatly between the eyes. The sadness of it was that the dead man had been a wonderful warrior, drunk or sober.

Good leadership can take many forms. It can be quirky and cruel, as the great revolutionary general Pancho Villa frequently demonstrated. Once he was irritated by one of his troops bellowing drunkenly beneath his balcony during an interview with an influential American journalist. Embarrassed, the great man drew his revolver and shot the offender neatly between the eyes. The sadness of it was that the dead man had been a wonderful warrior, drunk or sober.

You might wonder about the relevance of this story to today's international rugby union match between England and Wales at Twickenham. It is told expressly for the benefit of Mike Catt, who was yesterday overlooked by the England coach, Clive Woodward, when Paul Grayson, Jonny Wilkinson's experienced stand-in, was ruled out.

Instead of picking the even more experienced Catt, Woodward decided to give Olly Barkley his first start in an international match. Now you might say Catt's fate has been less devastating than summary execution, but for a little while he might take some convincing.

The point is that some very good rugby judges are convinced that without Catt England might very well not have been crowned champions of the world in Sydney last November. They might have been back at home watching today's opponents play France in the semi-final, and counting the consequences.

These would have been huge, financially, psychologically, historically, and in the honours list. There would have been no unforgettable victory parade through London. No mega book sales for the captain and author Martin Johnson and a pot of gold to go off into retirement. No deification of young Wilkinson, and vastly escalating sponsorships. No knighthood for Woodward because the fact that he has done a superb job for the organisation and horizons of English rugby union would have given him no more kudos than, say, one of the greatest footballers ever bred in these islands, the recently departed John Charles. When honours lists need a little excitement, in sport and elsewhere, the gongs go to celebrity and your last results.

However, none of this was a factor when Woodward came to choose the man charged with considerable responsibility when England attempt to sweep away the crisis of confidence which came with the shocking defeat by Ireland at Twickenham two weeks ago.

Barkley has long been considered one of England's most likely coming lads and has already appeared several times as a replacement, though not with great impact in Rome a few weeks ago, when he came on late in a runaway win over Italy - a cameo performance memorable only for an uncanny impersonation of Wilkinson's ritualistic approach to taking a penalty kick. It was all there, the solemn contemplation, the gathering of the hands, then the deliberate strike. Unfortunately the ball flew wide.

By choosing him today, though, Woodward is merely underlining that he will always be his own man. A few years ago, he did what some considered was precisely the opposite of Pancho Villa's murderous act when he berated his players, some of them on their telephone answer machines, for even thinking about staging a strike.

Many, especially those who thought the players had a valid argument, thought Woodward had at least shot himself in the foot. Soon enough, however, the England players were charging through brick walls again, if not for Woodward, then at least for the collective goals he had so relentlessly identified.

Since winning the World Cup Woodward has carved into the certainties that some players may have thought they had created for themselves in the high drama of World Cup victory over Australia in the Telstra stadium. Neil Back was dumbfounded when he couldn't find his name on the team sheet. So, too, was Matt Dawson. The other day Jason Leonard felt the cool breeze of exclusion.

But none of this, when you thought about it, was quite preparation for the surprise of yesterday's decision. For that tremor to register most strongly you perhaps had to be in the Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane four months ago when Catt performed his extraordinary rescue act against the Welsh in the World Cup quarter-final.

Wales were outplaying England comprehensively, leading at half-time and sending the young demi-god Wilkinson back to the dressing-room with the expression you might see on the face of a confused puppy dog. It was then, as one great former Welsh international, Gerald Davies, said, that Woodward probably made his "career decision". He sent Catt on to, in effect, hold Wilkinson's hand, and within a few minutes the former Wales captain Gareth Davies was saying, mournfully: "Everything has changed. Catt is the difference. England will win now."

Catt organised England. He kicked with great assurance, gaining territory - and confidence. The rest, of course, was the most exalted passage in the history of English rugby.

But that was November 2003, today is now. Woodward, like Pancho Villa, knows that leadership is not about winning popularity among the troops. It's about doing what you think is right. Sometimes that puts you in a harsh light, but nothing brings forgiveness like winning.

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