Catt sets out to make doubters eat their words

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The Independent Online

An awful lot of people in English rugby subscribe to one of two views on the subject of Michael John Catt - that he is a gifted bit-part actor frustratingly incapable of going a full 80 minutes on the serious sporting stage, or that he is an injury-prone busted flush whose MBE, awarded for an intermittent if timely contribution to the great happenings in Australia last year, stands for "More Bloody Excuses". There is a third theory, far more favourable to the South African-born midfielder, but its adherents are significantly fewer in number.

An awful lot of people in English rugby subscribe to one of two views on the subject of Michael John Catt - that he is a gifted bit-part actor frustratingly incapable of going a full 80 minutes on the serious sporting stage, or that he is an injury-prone busted flush whose MBE, awarded for an intermittent if timely contribution to the great happenings in Australia last year, stands for "More Bloody Excuses". There is a third theory, far more favourable to the South African-born midfielder, but its adherents are significantly fewer in number.

Happily for Catt, this minority includes a chap by the name of Woodward. The England coach always claims to pick the Test side on form and merit, but he has also backed a few hunches down the years. He certainly backed Catt during the knock-out stage of the World Cup, introducing him off the bench in the quarter-final against Wales - a master stroke, as it turned out - and playing him from the start against France in the last four. Catt also appeared in the final, kicking the ball into the middle of next week to slam the door on the Wallabies after Jonny Wilkinson's decisive drop-goal. And today? Today, he is in the run-on team once again, and faces the All Blacks for the first time in more than six and a half years.

It means the world to him, not least because the last couple of months have been so unremittingly depressing. Soon to be out of contract at Bath, the club he had joined out of the blue 12 years previously after travelling to the West Country from the Eastern Cape on a family visit, he waited for the club to open discussions on a new contract. And he waited, and he waited. It quickly became clear that Bath were no longer interested - after a lengthy period of deafening silence, they effectively said as much by making him an offer so derisory that it bordered on the insulting - so he looked elsewhere. After being tempted by a lucrative move to Japan, he agreed Premiership terms with London Irish.

Does he see his selection for this match at Carisbrook as a personal vindication, as proof positive that Bath got it badly wrong? "Not at all," he replied. Then, after a pregnant pause, he continued. "Hell, I feel like Bill Clinton, telling you that. Look, I could say a whole lot of stuff about the Bath business, but I really don't want to dwell on it. I have the fondest feelings towards the club; during my time there, I played with the best players around and won everything there was to win. I'm Bath through and through.

"But it's over, gone, finished. I had two or three weeks of pain, but by the time the Premiership final came round at the end of last month, I was over it. I knew I'd be playing elsewhere next season, and I'd come to terms with the situation. Frankly, I'm past caring about proving points to other people. I know in myself that I can still play rugby at a high level, that I have something offer. My fitness? I've never felt better. It's been a pretty easy season, actually; I certainly haven't run myself into the ground. It's difficult to be exhausted when your club restricts you to five or 10 minutes here and there, and only stick you on when they feel they have no alternative."

Catt has always had a sprinkling of the gold dust on him - a natural games player and a formidable athlete, he could run and surf with the best of his generation back home in Port Elizabeth - yet at international level, a consistency of impact seems beyond his powers. Somewhere along the line he developed a habit of slipping the mind, of rising and falling without trace. He is a strangely elusive, evanescent figure for one who, since his England debut under Geoff Cooke in March 1994, has participated in three World Cups, played five different roles - full-back, wing, outside-half and both centre positions - for his country, spent two spells as principal goal-kicker and, at his best, distributed the ball with as much vision and subtlety as any of his peers.

Perhaps now, with 63 caps and 142 Test points behind him, he will emerge fully into the light and fire of an England midfield shorn not only of the injured Wilkinson and the out-of-form Will Greenwood, but of much of its directional sense. Why not? Paul Grayson played much of his best international rugby in his 30s, and it is perfectly reasonable to argue that Martin Johnson reserved his finest performances for the fag-end of a career that grew more fulfilling with each passing year. At 32, Catt insists he is moving onwards and upwards, not sliding downhill on his rear end.

"To be here in New Zealand, to be a part of this, is fantastic," he said before flying south from England's base in Auckland. "I've played and won in every major rugby country in the world bar this one, and to have this chance 10 years after I started out in international rugby... hey, it's quite a thing, isn't it? The All Blacks represent the biggest obstacle, the ultimate challenge, in the sport, and anyone blessed with a competitive spirit strong enough to take him to this level wants to test himself against the ultimate.

"If you look at the New Zealand back line - Howlett and Rokocoko, Umaga and Spencer - you draw a deep breath. They're bigger and stronger than most opponents, they're more physical, they run more dangerous lines and they express themselves more freely. But I don't buy the argument that the England back division is out of form; I believe we've struggled for opportunities because things have been going wrong elsewhere, and that we'll score tries if we get the ball in the right places at the right times. The mood is completely positive. I think you'll see some spice from us on this tour."

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