Mike Catt had tentative plans to spend the next year circumnavigating the rugby globe, picking up fresh coaching ideas from major union-playing nations before embarking on the next stage of his career. If he plays his cards right in his native South Africa next month, the World Cup-winning centre may spend the next four years travelling on the Twickenham budget.
"This is a massive opportunity," England's interim backs coach said yesterday in Leeds, where he was putting local schoolboys through their paces before turning his attention to players in the national squad, some of whom played like schoolboys – and behaved like them, too – at last year's global gathering in New Zealand, but have since grown up sufficiently to retrieve their professional sporting reputations from the gutter. "If I looked too deeply into the possibilities ahead of me, I'd probably be blinded by them. All I know is that chances like this don't come along often."
Catt has signed a short-term deal to join the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and the forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, on the England back-room staff for the forthcoming three-Test series against the Springboks, which begins in Durban on 9 June. To all intents and purposes, he and Lancaster are still strangers to each other – the two men had barely met prior to the opening of job discussions late last month – but Catt is already convinced he can work productively alongside the new boss.
"I'll need to get to know Stuart a lot better," he acknowledged, "but he's a very decisive character and he has a clear vision of where he wants the England team to go. We saw in the Six Nations that he has been successful in creating the right culture. When you think that Clive Woodward took two or three years to move towards that, you have to say that Stuart, Graham and Andy Farrell did an amazing job in making so much progress in the space of a few weeks. I know from talking to Alex Corbisiero [the Test prop who worked with Catt at London Irish] that the players were buzzing under Stuart. We had that kind of feeling back in 2003, when we won the World Cup."
Had Farrell done what everyone expected him to do and committed himself to the England cause, Lancaster would not have thought of bringing Catt on board. Instead, Farrell opted to stay with Saracens – partly out of loyalty to the club that stuck by him through an injury-riddled playing career and then set him on a new career path as a coach; partly because he considered himself too underboiled as a tactician and strategist to throw all his eggs into the international basket. That decision opened the Catt-flap, so to speak.
There are certain intriguing similarities between the two men: both were midfielders – indeed, they operated alongside each other under Brian Ashton at the 2007 World Cup – and are young enough to communicate easily with the current players. Farrell's communication skills were a major contributory factor to England's excellent Six Nations run, and Catt believes he can talk the same language to similar effect.
"All the guys in the squad are hugely talented," he said. "If they weren't, they wouldn't be putting on an England shirt. It's a matter of getting the best out of them and I believe I have the empathy required. Whatever a player goes through, be it good or bad, I've been through it – probably twofold. I think it's very important for players to be able to open up to a coach who knows where they are coming from, and having just finished playing myself, that's a huge plus for me."
Catt decided back in February that he would end his productive association with London Irish at the end of the season – this weekend's Premiership finale with Gloucester will mark his departure – and it seemed likely at one stage that he would return to Bath, the club he joined on arriving in this country from Port Elizabeth a little over two decades ago. When that apparent opening suddenly closed, there was no immediate Plan B.
"Two weeks ago I was wondering what I might be doing next season," he admitted. "I wasn't too worried: I've never been one for planning things, for mapping things out. It never goes the way you want it to, so why bother? I just take it as it comes. But I knew I'd have to do something, so the idea of travelling and experiencing different environments cropped up. Then Andy made his decision and, suddenly, here we are. I've had a lot of opportunities in life, but this is one I really need to grasp."
Victory over the Boks would put Catt in a very strong position, just as the unexpected runners-up finish in the Six Nations put Lancaster ahead of the field in the race for the head coach's job. Can England win a series in the republic for the first time in their history? Catt, who knows as much as most about rugby in his homeland, is not ruling it out.
"It will be tough, obviously, but sport is a funny thing: look what's happened to me over the last fortnight," he commented. "I'm sure Stuart knows exactly what we need to do to win there and the players will know by the time they board that plane. After that, it will be down to the bounce of the ball."