Mike Catt and Mathew Tait: Never mind the gap

Mike Catt and Mathew Tait are the oldest and youngest members of England's side but tonight they form England's centre pairing in the World Cup final. Chris Hewett talked to them about what makes their partnership tick

They are not all old, and not all grumpy. Not quite. Mathew Tait, playfully nicknamed "truffle" by the cauliflower-faced denizens of the England pack on account of his being "sweet on the outside and soft on the inside", is so ridiculously young by red rose standards that he watched the World Cup triumph of 2003 in the sixth-form common room at Barnard Castle School. "It was a posh school, so I had to go in on Saturday mornings," he recalled this week. What lessons did he miss? Double Latin, perhaps? A gripping hour of applied mathematics? "I can't remember much about the day, apart from Jason's try and Jonny's drop goal."

Tait is 21. Mike Catt, on the other hand, is 36 – an entire rugby-playing career older than his fellow centre. Between them, they will confront two extremely capable Springboks – the precocious Frans Steyn, who is even younger than Tait, and the predatory Jaque Fourie – in tonight's World Cup final. Neither partnership is of long standing: Steyn and Fourie found themselves thrown together after the tournament-ending injury suffered by Jean de Villiers in South Africa's opening match with Samoa; Tait and Catt hooked up for the quarter-final with Australia a fortnight ago as a result of all manner of trials and tribulations affecting the England camp, from Jamie Noon's mangled knee ligaments to Andy Farrell's chronic inability to remind anyone why he was picked in the first place, via Olly Barkley's sad and sorry implosion against the Tongans.

It is by no means clear that the two Englishmen – or rather, one Englishman in Tait and a naturalised South African in Catt – have developed the understanding that might shore up the red rose defences against the kind of ruinous damage caused by the Boks in the now infamous 36-0 pool game last month. Generally speaking, telepathy takes more than two weeks to work its magic on the thought processes, and as no one seriously expects them to play another match together, it may never happen at all. Yet both have a sharp appreciation of the talents of the other, and seem happy enough with their relationship under the now-or-never circumstances.

"Mathew? He's a hell of a talent," Catt said. "To me, he's the future of English rugby. In that game against Tonga, which was a difficult one for us, he played really well – well enough to show how much he's developed as an international player since he first came into the side." Would he play differently if, say, a been-there-and-done-it veteran like Mike Tindall were outside him tonight? "Not at all. Mathew has been picked on merit, from a squad that has a full bank of midfield players. If the coaches didn't think he was up to it, they wouldn't have chosen him. I have no doubt he'll do his bit.

"Mind you, this Steyn can play a bit too. I love his sense of freedom, his no-fear attitude, his willingness to try things from anywhere on the field. He'll make decisions and act on them. They might be right, they might be wrong, but he'll back himself. We need more of that in our game, and I'm happy to see it coming through." Did Steyn remind Catt just a little of himself at a similar age, when he had just arrived in England from his native Port Elizabeth and stumbled across the Bath club, after phoning Gloucester – the nearest top-flight club to his uncle's home in Stroud – and getting no reply? He smiled and nodded. Ah, the blissful confidence of youth.

Back in the early months of 2005, when Tait found himself making his England debut against Wales in Cardiff on the eve of his 19th birthday, he had moments of extreme discomfort. But as a wise man once said: "When you're green, you're growing; when you're ripe, you rot." The young midfielder from Co Durham has grown a good deal since being buffeted around the Millennium Stadium by one Gavin Henson (the tackles were essentially showboating efforts, but they served to deflect attention away from the quality of Tait's all-round game). Now, he is quite happy to argue the toss with his elders, on the basis that he does not necessarily consider them his betters.

"Mike has been around, he has a wealth of experience and he knows how to act as the eyes and ears for those around him," he said. "He also tells you how it is. There's no point in bullshitting about this: he calls a spade a spade, and he can come across as a bit rash. He's doing it for your benefit, though. That's the key point. I feel entitled to challenge some of the things he says and I do – I want to be his eyes and ears when the situation demands, in the same way that he's mine – but most of the time, it turns out that he's right. The experience he's gathered over the years, the fact that he's been involved in a World Cup final and come off the field a winner, counts for so much. There's no short cut to getting where he is in terms of his knowledge."

If Catt recognises something of his younger self in the buccaneering Steyn, he must also see flashes of his early days when he trains and plays alongside Tait. Not just in terms of his partner's new-found assertiveness, although Catt quickly learnt to fight his corner at Bath when surrounded by the caustic wits of Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott and Gareth Chilcott; but also in the pure rugby gifts of sharp acceleration and appreciation of space. Catt used to do precisely the things that Tait does now, with equal facility, and he might well have forged himself a reputation as one of the truly great England centres had he been picked there early, instead of at full-back or outside-half.

Brian Ashton, a long-time supporter of Catt, considers Tait to have similar skills – the kind of skills that hurt modern defences, irrespective of how organised they may be. "One of the things with Mathew," he said, before assuming his current role as England's head coach, "is his ability to take a pass with such precise timing that he creates the gap then goes on to exploit." When Ashton watched both players trip the light fantastic in a mesmerising Premiership match between London Irish and Newcastle at the Madejski Stadium early last March, he pretty much decided they would be among his 30-strong squad for this tournament. Nothing happened in the interim to change that opinion.

Catt knows what it is to scale the high peak of a World Cup – it was he who banged the ball halfway across Sydney to signal the end of the 2003 final, a few seconds after Wilkinson's famous potshot at the sticks – and while he is pleasantly surprised by England's progress here, he has been playing this daft game far too long to be shocked. "Sport is sport, isn't it?" he said. "In tournament rugby, you grasp whatever you can and hang on to it. Should England be in this final? Will this competition be won by the best team? It is what it is. Most people assumed the All Blacks were the best team and would make it to Paris for the last bash. But they're not here. That's the game."

By contrast, Tait finds himself on the steep upper slopes, peering anxiously towards the summit and wondering if he'll get there before the weather closes in. "I'd love to say this is just another match, but it's not," he remarked. "I've been in finals with England on the seven-a-side circuit, and big finals too: the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, with 60,000 in the stadium; the Hong Kong Sevens, with 45,000 screaming the house down. Those were intense experiences, but they don't really compare with this one." He will try to relax in the hours leading into the game, but having lost his iPod, he is without the comforts of music. "I like the sound of running water, so I'll probably lay on the bed with the shower running." An interesting approach, to be sure, but a man must find his nirvana where he can.

Could it possibly work, this mix of old and young? Can Catt find the physical wherewithal to withstand the Springbok battering, led as it will be by the ferocious Butch James, whom he confronted in the outside-half position when virtually the same South African side beat England by more than 30 points in the second round of pool matches. (Catt described his and his team's performance that night as "diabolical", which at least had the virtue of honesty). Can Tait really stack up against Fourie, the tough product of Carletonville, a high-veld town to the west of Johannesburg? Fourie has been one of the most consistent, resilient Boks of the tournament, and while the Englishman played well enough against the outstanding Wallaby captain, Stirling Mortlock, in the quarter-final, Mortlock was on the back foot that day. Fourie will spend at least some of his time, if not most of it, on the offensive.

"I suppose it might come down to 80 minutes of tackling, but if that's what I have to do, so be it," the youngster said. "It would be nice to get a run or two with the ball, though, and it's not out of the question – we've played a lot more rugby than we've been given credit for, especially against the Australians. If we can just get that last pass right, we're capable of scoring tries."

And Catt? "It's been a hell of a journey," he remarked, "but when people ask me if I actually believe we're in the final, I say: 'Of course.' I've been through enough to believe anything and everything. Yes, we lost 36-0 to these people last month. No, we haven't been able to forget it, largely because people keep bringing it up. But we're a different team now, and this is a different game. Anything could happen. It's rugby."

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