Mike Catt: 'Timing was wrong but I was trying to express how I felt'

Brian Viner Interviews: Former England centre admits mistake in attacking coach Brian Ashton's handling of the World Cup campaign
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The Independent Online

Last Saturday evening, Mike Catt phoned Brian Ashton, the man who coached him at Bath and latterly for England. He told Ashton that a Sunday newspaper was serialising his autobiography, and that the following day's paper might contain some rather blunt assessments of the head coach's performance during the shambolic early stages of the recent World Cup.

"I told him that there would be a few things he might not like reading, although he'd heard them all before from me. Brian just said: 'what will be, will be', and we left it at that. I haven't spoken to him since ... though I hope that when I next see him, everything will be fine between us."

The following day when Catt turned to the extract, his stomach lurched. The headline across a double-page spread in The Mail on Sunday was "No direction, no tactics, no belief, and a coach in a state of confusion, how did England ever get to the World Cup final?", which he felt was a misrepresentation of what he had written. Even so, he did not expect the faecal matter to hit the fan quite as spectacularly as it did, following criticism of Ashton not only from him but also from Lawrence Dallaglio, another man with an autobiography to sell.

Phil Vickery was quick to turn on his two predecessors as England captain, accusing them of scraping the gloss off his country's triumphant passage to the final, and by Wednesday Vickery had been joined by everyone from Ashton's own predecessor, Andy Robinson, to the Harlequins coach, Dean Richards, who recommended an international ban for those who criticise their coach, to that noble arbiter of sporting morality, David Mellor. Even the Rugby Football Union, not known for its lightning reflexes in times of crisis, declared that it will in future try to prevent players from writing books for six months after a major tournament or tour. From all directions, the message was unequivocal: by portraying Ashton as a man floundering, Catt and Dallaglio had sacrificed some, much, or all, depending on whose opinion you sought, of the esteem in which they were previously held.

So, there is much to discuss with the man sitting before me in the 16th-floor boardroom of his publisher, Hodder & Stoughton. After a few pleasantries about the marvellous view over central London, we survey the damage that appears to have been dealt to his reputation.

"Obviously that article was not at all what I wanted," he says. "I knew they were serialising it, but for them to have taken 10 negative lines out of the book and headlined it the way they did was pretty damning."

I must look unsympathetic, which to an extent I am – surely every sentient person knows that newspapers serialise books not to sell the book but to sell the newspaper, pouncing on the most newsworthy passages – because he then says: "It was probably a bit naïve of me, although I stand by what I said because at the time that's how I felt. They've just gone and blown the thing way out of proportion."

A little cruelly, I read Catt a line from a respected sports columnist, asserting that he and Dallaglio have, effectively, cashed in at Ashton's expense.

He winces. "That's why today is important for me, to get my point of view across," he says. "I don't want to harp on about it, I'm not feeling great about it, and that [the perception that he stabbed Ashton in the back] is not me as a person. I wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of that. So I hold my hands up. The timing was wrong, and I had no intention of distracting from our achievement. But I was trying to express to people how low I felt, and the only way was to tell it how it was. That chapter, and it's only one chapter, ends up praising Brian. I was really pleased for him, and I have great respect for him. He's one of the reasons I'm here! I was just trying convey my frustration, because I was looking at him, thinking 'I know you can do it'."

Catt has not fielded a call from Vickery, or from any of his erstwhile England team-mates (rather lost in all this brouhaha, was the announcement, albeit an unsurprising one, that the 36-year-old centre has now retired from international rugby).

"I understand where Vicks was coming from," he says. "Dean Richards as well. But all I would say is, read the book. And let's focus on the positive stuff. We should be basking in the achievement of reaching the World Cup final."

Which is a little like John Wilkes Booth saying "we should really just focus on the play, Mrs Lincoln". On the other hand, I have read the book, and I commend its honesty. Moreover, it was clearly Catt's respect for Ashton that compounded his bewilderment over the preparation for the South Africa pool game, which in the book he describes as follows: "We had no gameplan, no strike moves, nothing ... We had done no meaningful analysis on South Africa, we went into the game with no shape and, consequently, with no belief. It was the worst week I had known in international rugby."

The final whistle of the quarter-final against Australia, by happy contrast, represented one of his best moments in international rugby.

"From the outset," he says, "we just knew we weren't going to lose. We played in a way that shocked them, threw the ball around a bit, and they didn't have a clue what was going on. I know we only won by two points but we should have been a lot further away. And of course what made it better was that they'd ribbed us all bloody week... everyone hates the English... Lote Tuquiri saying we had no world-class players ... all that stuff. What was also satisfying for me was that Mike Foley, their forwards coach, was at Bath when I was there and was one of the main reasons I left. It was nice to get one over on him, although I think my wife was more excited than I was."

Returning to Ashton, to what does Catt ascribe the Lancastrian's apparent haplessness in those earlier stages?

"He'd had very little time in the job, dealing with coaches he didn't really know, and five or six opinionated players who all wanted to play the way their clubs play. He was also having to deal with the media, which is not his strength, and took him away from coaching. Brian's a fantastic coach, so let's have him coaching. I honestly think he's vital to the England cause, and he's got some hugely talented youngsters coming through. Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty, Dan Hipkiss ... it bodes well for the next World Cup but never mind that, there's the Six Nations next. Do you play [Mathew] Tait at 13 or 15? Does Hipkiss play at 13? Do you bring back [Mike] Tindall? The important thing is to give these guys confidence to go out and perform, to tell Tait he's playing 13 for the whole Six Nations..."

Catt himself would not mind giving those instructions as England coach somewhere down the line, though in the current climate of recriminations he can be forgiven for being less than gung-ho about that particular ambition. In the shorter term, he is to be player-coach at London Irish, a job he has effectively been doing for the last year or two.

"I think I've become a better player myself by coaching others," he says. "I'm massively interested in coaching. Very few of the players from the 2003 era have gone into coaching, yet these are guys with such a wealth of experience to share with the new guys coming through. I almost feel like I'm obliged to feed information to the younger guys. I certainly don't want to sit behind a desk. I want to stay on a rugby pitch all my life."

Catt adds, with the barest hint of a rueful smile, that he intends to coach "the Brian Ashton way, with width, using the freedom of the pitch. Brian doesn't try to coach the flair out of you; if anything he tries to put it into you. He says, 'Mathew Tait, you're good at the outside break, so do it, and if you don't, I'll drop you.'

"I like that approach because rugby is all about defence at the moment, which is very worrying. The reason New Zealand have been so good for the last four years is because they scored tries from all parts of the pitch. Then they came to the World Cup and condensed it a bit. We did that in 2003 as well. For two years we'd been beating sides by 40 or 50 points, but as the competition got closer we started condensing again, because we became scared of losing. Trying to break down those defences is something I'd thrive on, and I've got a few ideas..."

I ask whether, given the power, he would encourage a more attacking game with legislation? A smile. He has a wide thin-lipped smile that reminds me of a child's drawing. "Yes. I'd change it so that you can't kick a penalty until you've scored a try. The game needs to be more positive. In the final, [Schalk] Berger didn't mind giving away a penalty by diving right on top of Taity, he wanted to prevent a try, and he didn't get sin-binned or anything, so it worked. That's what happens any time a team gets momentum. That's where Wasps are so good, and Leicester, at slowing things down."

But surely, I argue, if penalties can't be scored without a try in the bag, even World Cup finals might end up 0-0? "Yeah, it's a hard one, and it's for the experts to worry about. But southern hemisphere teams already play attacking rugby before they tense up in the World Cup."

Catt, of course, is himself a child of the southern hemisphere, brought up in Port Elizabeth with three sports-mad brothers, playing rugby up to under-13s level in bare feet, both to encourage balance and because not everyone could afford boots. It's a good job he hasn't been in bare feet stepping on and off the pedestal of public opinion these past 10 years; they'd be hellishly blistered. The man once jeered by the Twickenham faithful for his goal-kicking tribulations became a national hero for his telling contributions in the 2003 World Cup, yet now he's ducking the flak again. I ask him whether in his decade as an England player, his South African origins have intensified the need to prove himself?

"I think so, yes. I finally felt I was accepted when I captained England in the Six Nations against France this year, which for me was second only to winning the World Cup. I've never looked too deeply into the South African thing, but I spoke to Hicky [the cricketer Graeme Hick] about it once. He's been dealt a few harsh blows too. Maybe the media makes too much of it, but the good thing is that guys like Hick, [Kevin] Pietersen, [Andrew] Strauss, Robin Smith, Matt Stevens, have come over here and been very successful."

And finally, coming from a country where sport is king, and rugby the king of kings, does the English attitude to rugby frustrate him? "Sometimes. It's still in the shadow of football." Which, I venture, was one of the big losers during the rugby World Cup, so irresistible was the comparison between the hard nuts withstanding juddering tackle after tackle, and those overpaid jessies rolling in agony after being tapped on the ankle. Catt roars with laughter at the memory of the Milan goalkeeper Dida collapsing as if shot after an over-excited Celtic fan brushed his face. "Unbelievable. How can he live with himself?"

There have been people asking the same of Catt himself this week. Perfectly well, is the answer, although he'd prefer not to have provoked the question.

'Landing On My Feet: My Story', by Mike Catt, was published yesterday by Hodder & Stoughton, priced £18.99

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