Mike Catt knows what it is to save England's bacon in a World Cup quarter-final, having performed the feat against Wales on the Queensland coast four years ago. This afternoon, he will attempt to do it a second time, against very different opponents on a very different stretch of shoreline. It is a lot to ask of a 36-year-old veteran at the fag-end of his playing career, but as Catt himself said yesterday on learning of his inclusion in the starting line-up for today's meeting with the Wallabies, there is nobody else.
Olly Barkley, who finished a distant second to the captain, Phil Vickery, in Wednesday's training-ground collision, was still suffering from a "dead" leg yesterday and was ruled out of contention by the medics. Even had Barkley been given a clean bill of health, Brian Ashton would have been tempted by Catt, a close friend and confidant. The head coach values the London Irish centre's tactical acumen and trusts his judgement. At this exposed stage of a tournament, trust is as important factor as any.
Catt was open and honest about England's shortcomings, which were most evident in the leaden-footed victory over the United States and the miserable surrender to South Africa at the start of the competition – the only two games in which the Port Elizabeth-born midfielder has participated.
"Things went horribly wrong against the Springboks, and I'm personally disappointed with the way it's have gone over the last four weeks," he admitted. "I have a chance – yet another chance – to go out and perform, so I'm grateful for that. There has been a huge change amongst us in the last two weeks; people have a much clearer idea of the shape we're looking to put on a game, and it's a shape that plays into my hands, with more width and more options."
Since England have been together since the end of June, those comments begged a question: namely, why had it taken 11 weeks to agree on a strategy into which all 30 players – 31, if the replacement midfielder Toby Flood is included - could buy? Catt was in no position to spill the beans, not on the eve of a game of this magnitude, but he made it abundantly clear that something went badly awry during the summer, when the detailed planning for this campaign was in process.
Still, England are where they are, and having inched their way into the knock-out stage with victories over the harem-scarem Pacific islanders of Samoa and Tonga, they at least have a chance of making the best of a bad job.
"There is no apprehension, just a great feeling of anticipation," said Ashton. "We don't share the sense of the outcome of this game that most other people seem to have." Did Catt's promotion, driven by the calf injury suffered by Andy Farrell, mean that England would attempt to play with a greater freedom against Australia than against the Boks? "We won't be changing our overall approach," the coach replied.
"I spoke earlier in the week about Farrell's directness, and we've lost that. But it was only one part our approach. The Wallabies are the brightest side in the world when it comes to identifying opponents' strategies early in a game. You need to be able to do more than one thing."
As Catt readily acknowledged, England are "huge underdogs". Even he may not have been aware how huge. In Australia, one bookmaker reported bets totalling $A35,000 (£15,225) on a Wallaby victory by a dozen or more points. How much had been gambled on an English victory of similar proportions? Er... six dollars.
The reality, of course, is that the champions will test the Australians in the areas they least like being tested – the scrum, the line-out, the maul. England's props, Vickery and the increasingly dominant Andrew Sheridan, are miles better than the Wallaby pair, and while Ashton may have let a potential advantage slip by dropping Steve Borthwick from the tight-forward unit, there is no reason why England should not achieve parity at the line-out. In Simon Shaw, they have an individual highly skilled in the setting up of attacking drives and even more proficient at stopping those constructed by the opposition.
As Mark Regan, the bullish hooker from Bristol, said this week: "The forwards will decide who wins this game. The backs will decide by how many."
Very true. However, the Australian backs might score an awful lot of points if their colleagues at the sharp end match the English forward effort, or even go close to matching it. Catt, who has just spent a fortnight outside the game environment, suddenly finds himself confronted by Matt Giteau and Stirling Mortlock, a Wallaby centre pairing of considerable dynamism. "They're probably the best around," he admitted, before ranking them alongside Tim Horan and Jason Little, the outstanding 1990s Wallabies.
In the circumstances, it is as well that Stephen Larkham's knee continues to give him gyp. As a midfield trio, the Larkham-Giteau-Mortlock axis can claim to be the world's best – better than the French version, better than the All Black model. With Berrick Barnes, the 21-year-old outside-half, calling the shots, they do not seem quite so authoritative.
Ashton was not counting any poultry yesterday – "Barnes seems a very confident young man, and an accomplished player too," he remarked – but he must sense that it could be worse. "We've prepared for this game as if Larkham were playing," he said. That he isn't is a major result.
Catt's appearance in the side inevitably led to questions about the furious 2003 scrap with the Welsh, which he joined at the start of the second half and promptly tilted England's way with some judicious kicking. "I suppose there is a parallel, but a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then," he said.
In truth, there is not much of a parallel at all. That Wales team was not a patch on this Wallaby one, and besides, the red rose army were a seriously strong act four years ago, despite their frailty on that hot night in Brisbane.
Can the 2007 vintage possibly win this one? Catt's favourite phrase, "never say never", is always apposite in the context of a sporting contest, but the likelihood must be that the Webb Ellis Trophy will be out of English hands by tea-time.Reuse content