Brian Ashton: Catt can break new ground as a coach if he keeps his edge

Pause, Engage
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The Independent Online

It is now a week since Mike Catt made his farewell appearance in top-flight rugby, yet I still find it difficult to believe he will not be out there on the pitch next season, even though he played at Premiership level, or its equivalent, for the best part of two decades.

He has committed himself to a full-time role as a coach, having had a foot in both camps for a while, and I have no hesitation in wishing an old friend and colleague every success – and, hopefully, his fair share of enjoyment – in a job that generates all manner of stress and pressure.

I see little point in looking back over Mike's playing career, for there have been numerous eulogies already, including two memorable appraisals from Jeremy Guscott and Will Greenwood, both of whom played alongside him in the England midfield and understood the things he brought to the mix. I must, however, mention that he was one of those rare individuals whose approach to rugby mirrored a couple of truths defined by my great sporting hero, Muhammad Ali: the idea that "he who does not dare to take risks achieves nothing in life"; and the notion that a sportsman should "defy the impossible and shock the world".

My interest is in how Mike develops as a coach, because I believe he has the ability to make a mark. In essence, I'd like to see him coach as he played – to stay loyal to his creative instinct. When I worked with him at Bath in the early and mid-1990s, he was one of a group of players who made it their business to be provocative, challenging and bloody-minded in their pursuit of excellence. To put it bluntly, they were all a pain in the arse, and quite deliberately so. It came from their determination not to allow their rugby to stand still, never to be satisfied with the things they achieved.

Knowing Mike, I'm sure he'll take this spirit of progressive non-conformity into his full-time coaching role at London Irish. Thank heaven for that. It is all too easy in this professional era for coaches to be bound and restricted by the humdrum routine of week-on-week preparation, so the thought that Mike is precisely the kind of person who will stay true to himself is reassuring.

We have already seen encouraging signs that he will attempt to do new and unexpected things, to keep his coaching fresh and invigorating. Early in the season, we saw Steffon Armitage, the London Irish flanker, defending in the outside-half position from scrums and witnessed the two half-backs, Paul Hodgson and Ryan Lamb, switching roles at the tackle area. This smacked of what I call the "SCD mentality" – it stands for Something Completely Different – and I'd be very surprised if Mike wasn't at the heart of it. If anyone can take today's players out of their comfort zones and point them in the direction of the stars, it's him.

But how does he ensure that he fulfils his potential in an increasingly homogenised, results-driven environment? I'd make two radical suggestions. First, I'd like to see him get out of the country as fast as he can, family commitments willing. If he spent two or three years in another rugby culture – France, perhaps, or down south in the Super 14 territories, where freedom of expression and exploration is better tolerated – it would surely help him extend an already fertile rugby imagination. Second, and this comes from personal experience, I'd advise him to find a secondary coaching environment that sits alongside his main one. During my days at Bath, I taught in Somerset at King's School, Bruton, and rather unashamedly used the rugby scene there as my laboratory, my testing ground for fresh ideas. If Mike can experiment somewhere, he will benefit greatly.

To my mind, he is one of the few ex-professional players who might have the balls to coach the rugby of the future, rather than settle for the rugby of the present or, worse still, fall back on the rugby of the past. How often do we hear the well-worn phrase "if it ain't broke, don't fix it"? Too often, in my view. It is the default position of many in the coaching community and it smacks of safety-first conservatism. I'd hate to see Mike get dragged into that, to see his rugby mind shut down. He should forget all about coaching awards and the suchlike: in the end, they are pieces of paper handed out at the end of a course. Instead, he should concentrate on the new, the different, the unusual. That way, he will make an impact.