Catt sees way out of tactical nightmare

Quarter-Finals: England replacement turns the tide as Spencer sparkles for New Zealand while McGeechan's last game leaves bitter taste
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The Independent Online

Here is a potted profile of the man who yesterday kept England in the fifth World Cup, who stopped a surge of the old Welsh genius for the running game which threatened to shatter the balance of rugby power. Age: 32. Medical record: too gruesome to be considered over the breakfast table. Breeding: English heritage, South African roots.

That last bit may be what you need to know most. Because whatever the level of their current collective talent - and Mike Catt has quite a lot of it - South Africans are almost invariably born with the rugby gene. They have nous and gut instinct for what can turn a match. They can read the spoor of the game.

England are still in the World Cup - don't give yourself a second's doubt about it - because Catt came on in the second half to show them what they should be doing. His effect was so dramatic he might have been carrying a powerful torch.

From the first moments of his arrival England were a different side, one capable of survival against a young Welsh team playing quite brilliantly. Indeed, if you review the recent record of the two nations, the Welsh play was something else besides. It was miraculous.

They ran with wonderful freedom and intuition. They scored two tries - the first created by the blinding pace of Shane Williams - to a Jonny Wilkinson penalty by half-time. England were going nowhere. But Catt changed everything. His raking kicks pushed the Welsh back. He sowed seeds of doubt where there had been none before. And when Jason Robinson, who might have been running flat bang into the Great Barrier Reef beforehand, finally broke the Welsh cover with a coruscating run and sent in Will Greenwood in the 44th minute, the England coach, Clive Woodward, could at last believe that he might just be heading for Sydney and a semi-final with the beautifully cohesive French.

That he had Catt to thank for the 28-17 win, in which Greenwood's was the only try against three from the Welsh, was transparently so, even though later Woodward - perhaps out of delicacy towards the feelings of his other players, and most notably the tactically naked Wilkinson - suggested Catt had been merely a routine replacement for a Dan Luger plucked from a living nightmare at the interval.

Catt's intervention had been about as routine as a bolt from the heavens. The Welsh knew well enough. Up in the stand, and with the score still level, the former Wales captain and out-half Gareth Davies said gloomily, and almost to himself, "Catt has changed the game; it's completely different now." Gerald Davies, a member of the greatest of all Welsh teams in the 1970s, concurred: "Credit where it's due, Woodward probably made the most important substitution of his career."

Make that his life, if it should be that in the next few days the England coach finds a way of reanimating, and even reprogramming the team that came here as strong favourites to win their first World Cup but who, until the arrival of Catt, performed as though they were operating in an old-style London fog rather than the brilliantly illuminated Suncorp Stadium.

Woodward, perhaps understandably after such a harrowing night, has rarely been so testy post-game. He snapped at a French journalist who asked him what he thought about the progress of Les Bleus in their obliteration of the fighting Irish in the day's other quarter-final. "They are playing well," Woodward testily conceded, "they are stand-out favourites. But they haven't played England yet."

What kind of England, however, will they play? The one that shook the traditional southern hemisphere power brokers of the world game with their relentless improvement in recent years? Or the one that at times has hinted that it might just be in the process of growing old on in the harness.

Certainly, the Welsh willingness to use the legs of the flying Shane Williams and the precocious back-rower Jonathan Thomas, and give free rein to the craft and intelligence of Stephen Jones, moved such English veterans as the captain, Martin Johnson (33), Neil Back (34) and Lawrence Dallaglio (31) on to a creaky back foot with alarming ease.

Later, after Catt had driven this startling Wales XV back into their own half with his acute kicking, the Old Guard were able to inflict enough pressure to set up a stream of penalties for the reliable boot of Wilkinson - this part of his game, after some early alarms, crucially did stand up to the traumas of the night.

But even as England clanked home, after surviving the last scare that came when Martyn Williams scored a late try, only to see Iestyn Harris then miss the penalty which would have reduced the margin to just five points with five minutes to play, you still had to think about what the French made of it all.

Surely they saw rich pickings for their brilliantly creative, young out-half Frédéric Michalak, and the old head of Fabien Galthié at scrum-half, and the growing chemistry between the battle-hardened warrior Olivier Magne and the warring instinct of the fast maturing Imanol Harinordoquy? Surely they suspected the roast beef was looking a little too well cooked?

Most troubling for England is the crisis of confidence plainly afflicting Wilkinson, who came here the prospective king of the world game. Statistically, he had himself another banquet: a conversion, six penalties, a drop goal - a vital, winning service for his team. But you know what they say about statistics, and nowhere in Wilkinson's latest set is any account of how utterly lost he seemed when the Welsh came at England with such breathtaking vigour.

At one point, Catt, as he took up the first receiving role at a set-piece, waved Wilkinson to go deeper. It was a firm suggestion rather than a dismissal but it was a hugely symbolic moment.

The young prince had been sent to join the rest of the courtiers. His role had been usurped. In the nick of time.