England's publicity machine has been insisting otherwise for weeks, but Mike Catt has always been in Clive Woodward's thoughts as a potential member of the red rose army's World Cup élite. That much became clear when Woodward drove from leafy Surrey to darkest Pontypridd to watch one of his favourite old lags play in a pre-season friendly for Bath - "I don't make a trip like that for the fun of it," the coach said yesterday - and now that Alex King's fragile body has once again given up the ghost at the worst possible moment, Catt has a 50-50 chance of making the cut.
Rather less than four hours after England's resident medical authority, Dr Simon Kemp, had issued a "categorical" assurance that no squad member was suffering from an injury that might threaten his chances of playing in next month's global tournament, King was history. "The doctor suggested I have a word because, in his view, there was not much likelihood of Alex's knee problems clearing up in time," Woodward explained. "So Alex and I chatted about the situation, and he reluctantly agreed that he wouldn't make it. He was devastated, quite understandably. It's a big thing for any player to go through."
King has plumbed the depths before. Six years ago, the Wasps outside-half was selected to face the Wallabies in the first match of Woodward's tenure, but was forced to withdraw 48 hours before kick-off because of - what else? - a knee complaint. In 1998, during the so-called "tour of hell", his problems were more psychological than physical, but none the less damaging for that. It took him five years to rebuild his confidence, harden his approach and broaden his skill base sufficiently for Woodward to show renewed interest. This may be one smack in the teeth too many.
Catt has hardly been a picture of health himself. He played precious few games for Bath last season, thanks to a back condition and a dodgy hamstring, and Woodward was unusually scathing in his assessment of the South African-born midfielder's recent on-field contribution. "He played some matches while patently unfit, and did himself no favours," the coach said. "I told him straight that there was no way I would consider him for the World Cup while he was in that sort of shape."
The 31-year-old joined the 34-strong party yesterday for fitness and conditioning tests before returning to the West Country. He will discover on Sunday whether he has breezed in from the back end of nowhere to snatch a place in the final 30. Assuming Woodward does not want to lumber Jonny Wilkinson, the crown prince of his back division, with bench duty against the likes of Samoa and Uruguay, he will need two supporting stand-offs. Paul Grayson of Northampton is certain to be one, fitness willing. The second slot is now between Catt and Austin Healey, with Newcastle's David Walder, chopped from the squad on Monday, a long-odds outsider.
Dan Luger's chances of appearing in a second World Cup are also in the balance. The former Harlequins wing, now bound for Perpignan, pulled out of tomorrow's warm-up international with France at Twickenham after suffering back problems in training. Iain Balshaw, a direct competitor for a seat on the plane, will replace him on the right wing and has every incentive to play a blinder.
Meanwhile, the Wallabies will defend the Webb Ellis Trophy on home soil without a number of front-rank forwards. A couple of days after the crippling withdrawal of Toutai Kefu the national coach, Eddie Jones, announced a squad shorn of Owen Finegan, Patricio Noriega, Glenn Panoho and Adam Freier. Matt Dunning, an uncapped prop from New South Wales, and John Roe, an undecorated loose forward from Queensland, have been selected ahead of more familiar rivals.
* Gwent Dragons lock Ross Beattie has been drafted into the Scotland team for their final World Cup warm-up Test against Ireland tomorrow. The lock is a late replacement in the team for Jason White, who has suffered a setback in his recovery from a back problem. Chris Paterson returns to the side after missing last week's defeat at Wales, along with Kenny Logan and Andrew Henderson.
AUSTRALIA WORLD CUP SQUAD: Backs: G Gregan (capt), C Latham, J Roff, W Sailor, L Tuqiri, M Rogers, S Mortlock, M Burke, M Turinui, E Flatley, N Grey, S Larkham, M Giteau, C Whitaker. Forwards: D Lyons, J Roe, G Smith, P Waugh, D Croft, M Cockbain, D Giffin, N Sharpe, D Vickerman, J Harrison, B Darwin, A Baxter, B Young, M Dunning, B Cannon, J Paul.
SCOTLAND (v Ireland, Murrayfield, tomorrow): G Metcalfe (Glasgow); C Paterson (Edinburgh), A Craig(Orrell), A Henderson (Glasgow), K Logan (Wasps); G Ross (Leeds), M Blair, A Jacobsen (both Edinburgh), G Bulloch (Glasgow), G Kerr (Leeds), S Grimes (Newcastle), N Hines (Edinburgh), R Beattie (Gwent Dragons), S Taylor (Edinburgh Rugby); A Mower (Newcastle). Replacements: R Russell (Saracens), G McIlwham (unattached), J Petrie (Glasgow), I Fullarton (Sale), G Beveridge (Glasgow), J McLaren (Aviron Bayonnais), S Webster (Edinburgh).
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