Mike Catt had reason to smile earlier this week as appreciation rippled through the media, and English rugby union circles, following the veteran centre's international recall at the grand old age of 34. After all, it took him years to become flavour of the month, and the man now fêted as an éminence grise was roundly booed by the Twickenham faithful when he missed a potential winning penalty against Australia in 1998, a match lost by a single point. Accordingly, he watched with interest as the England cricketer Kevin Pietersen, another man born and raised in South Africa, was lionised by his adoptive countrymen without ever having to confront the slurs that he was neither much cop nor quite one of them.
"Not being English born-and-bred, I think that sways the press," says Catt.
"I had three years of abuse from the press, and that can kill you as a player, because people believe what they read. Pietersen hasn't had it but I was always 'South Africa-born England player Mike Catt', not 'England player Mike Catt'. I wasn't the first. Robin Smith had it, Allan Lamb had it, and Graeme Hick had it badly. Really, it took me until the World Cup win to get embraced. Since then, I've had so many guys come up and say 'I'm one of those guys who booed you at Twickenham, but thanks for winning us the World Cup'."
Catt chuckles, as well he might. All is right with his world now, and on Sunday afternoon he will have an opportunity to put the tin lid, or even a silver lid, on his fine domestic season captaining London Irish. The club play Gloucester in the final of the European Challenge Cup, rugby's equivalent of the Uefa Cup, and have been propelled to within 80 minutes of glory not least by Catt's stupendous attacking form.
"I think what we've achieved has been remarkable," he says, gazing out from the stand overlooking the London Irish training ground at Sunbury-on-Thames.
"And the way we train, the way we play, has been great for me personally. Brian [Smith, the director of rugby] has introduced a player-led style, where we play to players' strengths. There have been times when it has gone wrong. We didn't get much ball against Leicester last weekend. But on the whole it's been a great success, and I've known that if I carried on playing well, an England call could come at any time. It's been frustrating for me watching England over the past couple of years, But I wouldn't have fitted in anyway. If certain new coaches come in I think we'll see some rejuvenated players and England playing good rugby again."
In particular, Catt is talking about Brian Ashton, who coached him at Bath years ago and is now back there trying to restore the proud old club's fortunes. "Brian coaches the basics: catching and passing. It's scary how many young players can't do those basic things properly. And kicking. Where are the English centres who can kick? It's important, because it takes the pressure off 10, but none of them can kick consistently well. Brian knows that, and as a coach he makes you think all the time. He doesn't want you running through players, he wants you running round them. It's not bish, bash, bosh with Brian, it's about finding space. There's no point throwing Mathew Tait down the middle of the field like he was against Wales two years ago. He's one of the quickest in the Premiership. You've got to put him in that outside gap..."
It is Catt's tactical nous, the way he reads the counter-attack, that England's head coach Andy Robinson hopes will rub off on the less experienced players - which is to say, everyone else in the squad with the exception of another old warhorse, Graham Rowntree - in Australia this summer. But the challenge of beating the mighty Wallabies with an untested team is like trying to grow crops in the Outback without water, and Catt is quick to discourage the idea that he is some kind of one-man irrigation system.
"England have only won twice in Australia ever, and that was with a fantastic side who'd been together for years. This time we don't even know each other, so it's a massive ask, but at the same time it's a massive opportunity for these young players. And Robbo has picked on form. They've all been doing exceptionally well with their clubs. So I don't need to say anything to a Mathew Tait or a Tom Varndell, I need to concentrate on my own game. Of course, if I can help in any way, then I will. For instance, if Brian Ashton does come in, it might be easier for him to get things across if there are players there who understand what he wants to do."
Catt is being ever so slightly disingenuous, or maybe just plain modest. For if his destiny once was to be remembered for being comprehensively flattened by Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup, his destiny now is to be forever celebrated as the man who came on at half-time in the 2003 World Cup quarter-final against Wales and by sheer force of presence turned the match in England's favour, shepherding an under-performing Jonny Wilkinson and making the right decisions all the way through to the moment when the Webb Ellis Cup was won. Not that it's quite how he sees it.
"No, if you watch that Wales game again, Jonny was phenomenal. Everyone will turn round and say: 'what are you talking about?' But he was. He tried to do everything himself, every kick, every try-saving tackle, and there was nobody around him to help him. Here was this 24-year-old guy with the world on his shoulders, and he needed help. I thought he was fantastic in that game, but he needed someone to say: 'slow down, calm down, I'll take this, I'll take that'. If I'm on the pitch with him, he doesn't have to do everything. We have an understanding."
It is an understanding with more past than future. At any rate, it is surely too much to expect even of the evergreen Catt that he will again be on patrol in the England midfield when the World Cup is defended next year, and he is himself looking no further than helping to return the team to winning ways in Australia.
"We can't do any worse than England have been doing," he says, with the ghost of a smile. A pause. "I love seeing players get better. For me that's the aim of playing the game, and it's been great that so many players at Irish have progressed as players. But look at some of the England guys, like Mike Tindall. He's a big guy, he can run great lines, he's very, very strong, but where's the next part of his game? Some of these guys have not developed as well as they should have."
Catt sees this as unequivocally a failure of coaching, and singles out his former coach at Bath, the Australian John Connolly. Coincidentally, Connolly is now in charge of the Wallabies, which would make a victorious England tour taste even sweeter for Catt, whose clashes with the coach eventually led to him leaving Bath after 12 years, 220 games, and something of a love affair. After all, it was Bath where he got his chance, as a 21-year-old from Port Elizabeth on a seven-month visa. He had spent a week with his English maternal grandparents in Eastbourne, then visited his uncle in Gloucester, and popped down to Kingsholm to see if he could get a game.
Gloucester didn't want him. Bath did.
"And if I hadn't joined Bath I would have gone home. I remember my first day of training. Oh my God, Jerry Guscott, John Hall, Richard Hill, Phil de Glanville, Andy Robinson, guys I'd only seen on television." As Catt sees it, Connolly later placed a bomb under Bath's rugby heritage as surely as if, in architectural terms, he had blown up the Royal Crescent.
"I didn't agree with the way he did things. There was no flair. He had myself, Olly Barkley, Iain Balshaw, Tindall, but he didn't use us at all. I've seen youngsters go there with all the flair in the world and have it all drained out of them. Brian is changing all that now. But I was absolutely gutted to leave. I loved the place, and from a rugby perspective they'd given me everything. For me to turn round and say goodbye because of two blokes [Connolly and his assistant Mike Foley] coming in from Australia...
"When I first went back with Irish last year it was terrible. I was sick. I thought 'what am I doing here, not playing for Bath? Why has this happened?' But by the time we played them down there this year (one of London Irish's more compelling wins of the season, in which Catt was as influential as always) it was just another game."
Catt's pointed assessment of Connolly's coaching techniques, as well as his own tactical astuteness, begs a question to which I already know the answer: when he does finally hang up his gumshield, does he fancy coaching? Of course he does. In fact he doesn't even scoff when I ask whether he fancies coaching England one day.
"I never look too far into the future. I might be sitting on a beach in Australia in five years' time. But I would love to put all my experiences to good use. I'm doing the coaching courses now, and I've enjoyed helping the youngsters here. I don't want to sit behind a desk, that's for sure."
In the more immediate term, what does he think of the suggestions that Sir Clive Woodward should be tempted back into the fold? If he were grand panjandrum at the Rugby Football Union, would he invite Woodward back? "Clive? Erm, yeah ... I would. He did a fantastic job, although I must say that the RFU gave him absolutely everything to do that job. The RFU was fundamental in us winning the World Cup, because everything he wanted they gave him. But having said that, Clive has been out of the game for a while and he probably has some fresh ideas. Whether he would bring in some of his old players to train with the boys, the Johnnos, the Jason Leonards, I don't know. But he will be thinking out of the box, that's for sure. The thing to remember is that Clive had us for six years and we lost three Grand Slams.
"Everyone expects things to happen right now, but it doesn't happen like that. You need to gel as a team first, and the introduction of new coaches into the England set-up, for me that's hugely important."
Huge importance, though, is a relative term. There is one other thing I want to ask Catt about, but I must choose my words carefully, for it is understandably a sensitive subject. In 2002 his baby daughter Evie suddenly stopped breathing and was later diagnosed as having a heart problem. Happily it has since been resolved - a happy, healthy Evie turned four last week - but I wonder whether in some ways his evolution as a rugby player, from maddening maverick to omniscient field marshal, has something to do with his daughter's life-threatening illness? "I don't think so," he says carefully. "In hindsight I'm very glad it happened, because it gave me a better understanding of people who go through traumatic experiences. Not once in 30 years had I been through something traumatic like that. Rugby became insignificant. Was it of some benefit to my rugby? Not massively. But when the guys here ask me about dealing with pressure, I say there is no pressure. When you have to resuscitate your kid, that's pressure. So maybe, yeah, it has helped my game in a way, although Will Greenwood might think differently because they lost a child.
"All I know is that I've been under real pressure only once and I came through it, and if I miss a goal kick I don't worry about it any more. I tried, and I missed. That's it." It might not be a winning philosophy, but it is the philosophy of a winner.Reuse content