When it comes to a fly-half enduring savage headlines, Mike Catt has been there, done that. The London Irish backs coach looked at last weekend's stinging notices of his new protégé Ryan Lamb – "error-strewn Exiles" and "Lamb's woeful debut" were the offerings of the two Independent titles – and laughed. "It has always been the classic reaction," Catt said. "You might have played well but because you missed the goal kicks that's how they judge you."
Four kicks by Lamb missed the Twickenham target in Irish's opening-day defeat. He also got involved in a silly push-and-shove with the Saracens hooker Shalk Brits, before being replaced by Peter Hewat. But Lamb will wear the No 10 jersey again today when he faces Gloucester, the club he left in the summer. Precisely a year ago, Lamb was dropped by the then Gloucester coach Dean Ryan, after a similar kicking performance against Leicester. Knee-jerk reactions are not for Irish's head coach, Toby Booth, or for the oft-scolded Catt.
"The Twickenham crowd got on my back for about three years when I was playing for England [in the 1990s], and it wasn't just the crowd either," Catt recalled. "Every newspaper, everybody had a little pop. That's why it's important I sat down with Lamby last Monday morning and analysed which aspects he was good at." The mettle-detecting session came out in Lamb's favour. "For me, it's the whole package," said Catt. "You can kick your goals but play like a drain, and that's not the way we operate. Ryan has put the work in to get it right. He's a good enough player to turn it round in a week."
Irish have plenty of alternatives. Catt, 38 next Thursday, has not yet hung up his boots but he sees himself as a reserve inside centre. Last year's dearth of out-and-out fly-halves has been addressed with the arrival of Lamb, Chris Malone from Harlequins and Jamie Lennard, top-scorer in the second division last season. Malone, regarded as cannier than Lamb in "game management", will get picked when it suits. "What Ryan has achieved so quickly, fitting into the way we play, has been amazing," said Catt. "We're using his distribution, which is the best I've seen in a player for a very long time. We do like to throw the ball around, and if a bad pass happens it mucks things up. So we've got high standards on that side. What we do at London Irish is take what you're good at and spend 75 per cent of the time on that, to make you world-class at it."
World-class distribution might move Lamb up the England ladder; he has Under-21 and Saxons caps. Jonny Wilkinson, if fit, is Catt's "top of the order" for England selection this autumn, although Catt can see a way in for Danny Cipriani. "It's up to Cipriani to put four or five games together and push Jonny, and we all know he's capable of it. It opens the door that Toby Flood is injured, but that's what rugby is about. And the guy who did well for the Saxons in the summer was [Northampton's] Steve Myler."
But what's best for England right now? "You need experience at eight, nine, 10 and 12," said Catt. "When Jonny first came into the England team he had Dallaglio, Dawson and Greenwood or myself outside him. Guys who knew what it was like at international level, and could clear up around him, so he could concentrate on his job. When I first played for England, at full-back, I had Rory and Tony Underwood, Guscott, Carling...all I had to do was catch a high ball and kick it 60 metres, or give it to one of them. At the moment Cipriani would have Nick Easter, Danny Care, Riki Flutey. They are not experienced internationals. They have to teach themselves, and teach each other. If I played Cipriani, I would play [Irish's] Paul Hodgson at nine, because he understands the way [England attack coach] Brian Smith works. Danny Care can play with Wilkinson.
"The squad of youngsters England have got at the moment will – in three, four or five years' time – be quality, I tell you now. Individually, they have got the X-factor about them. It's how you gel it at international level. That's the hardest thing."
Pick and mix: england's no 10s
Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon) Age: 30 Caps: 70
Toby Flood (Leicester)* 24/26
Riki Flutey (Brive)* 29/9
Shane Geraghty (Northampton) 23/3
Danny Cipriani (Wasps) 21/7
Sam Vesty (Leicester)* 27/2
Stephen Myler (North'ton)* 25/0
Best of the rest:
Charlie Hodgson (Sale) 28/31
Olly Barkley (Bath)* 27/23
Andy Goode (Brive)* 29/16
Dave Walder (Wasps) 31/4
Ryan Lamb (London Irish) 23/0
Glen Jackson (Saracens) 33/0
Alex Goode (Saracens) 21/0
Rory Clegg (Harlequins) 19/0
* currently injuredReuse content