Catt sees hope in Lancaster's rapid progress

England have improved faster than in early days under Woodward, says 2003 World Cup veteran

Port Elizabeth

It is perfectly possible – highly likely, many are arguing – that England will be steamrollered by what the red-rose attack coach Mike Catt describes as "the big green machine" at South Africa's newest Test venue this afternoon and spend the rest of the summer contemplating a three-zip beating by the Springboks, one of the teams they must learn to subdue if they are to have any hope of making a decent fist of the home World Cup in a little over three years' time. Would this be a disappointing outcome? For sure. A calamity? Not really.

Catt, one of the men who laid hands on the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney in 2003, believes that Clive Woodward, the rugby architect who designed and constructed that spectacularly successful England side, would recognise the progress made by current head coach Stuart Lancaster over the last six months or so. "It probably took Clive three years to get to where Stuart is now," the former centre said yesterday. "That's the measure of how good things are at the moment."

Leaving aside the salient fact that Lancaster and his fellow coaches are paid to win international matches – something they have so far failed to do on this trip – it was not difficult to see Catt's point. In the early years of the Woodward era, England suffered some thorough beatings from the Boks, on home soil at Twickenham as well as in the republic. (One of the worst was in Paris during the 1999 World Cup, when Jannie de Beer drop-goaled South Africa to a 44-21 victory at the quarter-final stage). If this 2012 vintage have lost on consecutive Saturdays, they have at least been competitive for an hour of each game.

Born in this very city – he intends to share a coffee tomorrow with his mother before "walking hand-in-hand along the beach" – Catt understands the nature of Springbok rugby and knows that if England fall off the pace for 20 minutes here, as they did in both Durban and Johannesburg, things could turn gruesome.

"There have been spells in both Tests when we've let ourselves down," he acknowledged. "We simply can't allow strong teams to dominate us for blocks of games. But, from our point of view, there's nothing like knowing what it's like to experience the reality of rugby in a country like this one. When he returns home, Stuart will have learnt a hell of a lot about individuals who can and can't operate in an extreme environment."

Big games in the Eastern Cape have a history of extremity: things kicked off here during the England tour of 1994, at the World Cup a year later and again on the last Lions visit in 2009.

Even at full strength up front, the visitors would have found today's contest a severe test of their physical and temperamental resilience. Sadly for them, they are not blessed in this regard. Chris Robshaw, their best player on this trip as well as their leader, is injured, and he was joined on the casualty list yesterday morning when the recalled loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero was ruled out with a recurrence of the knee injury that cost him his front-row place in Durban.

Joe Marler's blooding at Test level has been one of the tour's more positive aspects: the young Harlequins loose-head specialist may not have been entirely comfortable in his set-piece work, particularly in the opening Test a fortnight ago, but his energy and aggression, allied to his high tackle-count in open field, means Lancaster will not have to think either long or hard about including him in his senior squad for the autumn internationals – a squad scheduled to be named early next month. Another step up against the bear-like Jannie du Plessis this afternoon will further cement the England hierarchy's view of the matter.

Yet Corbisiero would have offered added value today. The London Irish front-rower is one of a very rare breed – the "thinking man's prop" – and his craft at close quarters might have posed some interesting questions of the Springbok scrummagers.

"This is a big blow," acknowledged Catt, who worked with Corbisiero before cutting his close ties with the Exiles at the end of the Premiership campaign. "Alex has had limited opportunities on this tour because of injury but he really showed what he's about when he came off the bench in Jo'burg last week. We'll just have to take it on the chin and get on with life."

Much the same can be said in respect of the Robshaw-less loose combination: a freshly minted unit featuring the two-cap freshman Tom Johnson, the 42-cap returnee James Haskell and the new No 8 Thomas Waldrom, who makes his first international start today.

One way or another, they will have their work cut out: the Boks may have lost the supersized blind-side operator Willem Alberts to injury, but Marcell Coetzee has been an eye-catching addition in the breakaway position, while Pierre Spies is playing some of his better rugby in the middle of the back row. Add the abrasive debutant Jacques Potgieter to the mix – the South African strategists really like this bloke – and … well, you get the drift.

If the sharp-end challenge is formidable, so too is the uphill climb facing the centre partnership of Manu Tuilagi and Jonathan Joseph. Last week's match passed Tuilagi by so completely that he barely contributed, while Joseph's loose kick to J P Pietersen late in the second half killed off England's comeback stone dead.

"Games go like that sometimes," said Catt, a midfielder of vast experience. "But as I've told the players: if you can't be man of the match in attack, it doesn't stop you being man of the match in defence."

England will have to defend for their lives at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium just to stay close to opponents who love nothing better than the smell of a whitewash in their nostrils. But while a win would border on the miraculous, a close contest would reinforce the legitimacy of the Lancaster Project.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York