Catt pushed into willing Exile arms

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The Independent Online

Mike Catt is no West Countryman - he was born in Port Elizabeth, not Chewton Mendip or Nempnett Thrubwell - but he has long considered himself a man of Bath. In fact, he still sees himself as such, despite yesterday's confirmation that he will play for London Irish next season. The England international had no desire to leave the Recreation Ground after almost a dozen years of service, but his failure to agree contractual terms with a board determined to hurt him in the wallet drove him into the willing arms of the Exiles.

Catt has played precious little club rugby this season, what with his tour of World Cup duty in Australia and subsequent injury hassles. For that reason - not to mention the presence of younger international backs like Olly Barkley, Mike Tindall and Matthew Perry on the payroll - the Bath hierarchy offered the versatile 32-year-old a deal bordering on the risible. Perhaps wisely, Catt chose not to vent his spleen in public when his departure was announced. In private, he was seething.

Bath have already off-loaded Iain Balshaw, another World Cup-winner, to Leeds, and it remains to be seen whether they succeed in making light of such significant losses. They have not made the best of starts in this regard. Barkley, Catt's anointed successor in the No 10 shirt and the current England outside-half, has been omitted from the starting line-up for this weekend's big Premiership match with Gloucester - the concluding fixture of the regular season and one Bath must win to guarantee finishing top of the pile - and may not even make the bench. Apparently, he is both physically tired and mentally distracted. Strange days indeed.

The peculiarities of life at Bath did not matter a fig to Conor O'Shea, the jubilant managing director of London Irish, who described Catt's signing as "one of the most exciting the club has made in recent times". The Exiles have now secured two international players for next season - Robbie Russell, the Scotland hooker, agreed a move from Saracens last week - which is two more than Bath have managed, despite their qualification for the 2004-05 Heineken Cup campaign. The Irish must win the forthcoming Zurich Wildcard tournament if they are to join their rivals in the élite European competition.

Meanwhile, Jason Leonard - otherwise known as the "fun bus" and the "phantom puncher of Barking" - has announced his retirement from all competitive rugby at the end of the season. The world's most decorated international player, with a scarcely credible 114 front-row caps to his name, called it quits at Test level after the Six Nations' Championship, and with fitness problems beginning to take their toll, he was widely expected to draw the line sooner rather than later.

Leonard is struggling with a foot injury at present, but hopes to make himself available for Harlequins' Parker Pen Challenge Cup final with Montferrand on 22 May before bidding a fond farewell to Twickenham when the Barbarians take on England eight days later. The grand old man of London rugby is also scheduled to turn out at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on 5 June, when one of his fellow Lions, the great Welsh goal-kicker Neil Jenkins, will be the headline attraction in a testimonial match.

"This decision was a very difficult one to make - I will miss the dressing-room banter and the training sessions enormously - but I want to go out while I'm still playing good rugby," said Leonard, who will be 36 in August. "My family have put up with a lot of absences down the years, and it is time I devoted more of myself to them."

In Wales, two of the most effective Red Dragon backs - Stephen Jones of Llanelli Scarlets and Gareth Thomas of Celtic Warriors - have confirmed their intentions to play in France next term. Jones, trailed long and hard by Leicester, has thrown in his lot with Montferrand, while Thomas has agreed to join Toulouse.

In Australia, meanwhile, the 56,000 tickets available for England's match with the Wallabies in Brisbane next month were sold within an hour of the box office opening for business.

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