Tim Glover: Why Exiles are the best time of Catt's two lives

World Cup-winning centre is reborn by Irish's fresh approach - and he still has England on his mind
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"Things are looking up," Mike Catt said. "London Irish have always been regarded as a friendly club but also as underachievers. Maybe it's time for a change."

Catt's own sea change came the season before last, when he left Bath after 12 "great years". The parting was more sorrowful than sweet. "The head man, Andrew Brown-sword, didn't have much of a clue," Catt said. "He's not a rugby man. Bath didn't want me, so I had no choice but to leave."

Brownsword, the greetings- card magnate, is the club chairman and principal investor at Bath; but the coaches, the Australians John Connolly and Michael Foley, are rugby men, and they did not want to keep Catt either. To be fair to Bath, the appear-ances of Catt, an England Test veteran, had been reduced to a trickle by a series of persistent injuries. He was shown not so much the door as the cat flap.

"I understand why they didn't want to keep me. It was more a personal thing than a rugby matter. Some coaches you get along with, some you don't. I was gutted at the time, but thank God I left when I did. Had I stayed I would have been retired by now. The last two years at Bath I seemed to have been permanently injured. I was getting treatment every day and I couldn't understand why I kept breaking down. Since joining London Irish I haven't had a problem."

After avoiding relegation last season, London Irish changed a lot of things: new management; 10 new players, most of them from overseas, including the great Frenchman Olivier Magne; and a new head coach in Brian Smith.

"It's as if we're starting from scratch," Catt said, "and everything is much more professional. Smith is very competitive, very passionate and he expects a lot of hard work. The most refreshing thing is that we're given the freedom of the pitch and are allowed to express ourselves. It's a risky way of playing, but when we get it right it's fantastic."

Smith, an Australian, used to be the backs coach at Bath, where he worked with Catt for two years. "London Irish are attempting to play a style of game that suits me," the centre said. "You've got to try and enjoy yourself. The Premiership has changed. There's a lot of emphasis on size and brute force and we have lost a certain level of skill. There's been a massive influence from the southern hemisphere on the structure of the game and how to play it, and a lot of the time it doesn't work."

Catt, who is in his 14th season in top-flight rugby, will be 34 next week, which makes him one of the Premiership's senior figures. Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, he holds a British passport thanks to his English mother. The Under-21 triathlon champion for Eastern Province joined Bath in 1992 and made an immediate impression.

His first cap for England came in a 15-8 victory over Wales in 1994 and his 65th on the tour to Australia and New Zealand last year. Without Catt, England might not have won the World Cup and Clive Woodward might not have got a knighthood. In the quarter-final in Brisbane they were losing to Wales and looking rattled. The picture changed when Catt came on for the second half and rode shotgun to Jonny Wilkinson.

"Jonny was trying to do everything himself. He needed a lot of help and he wasn't getting it. I had a very good understanding with him and my job was to take the pressure off. I said, 'Look, mate, I'll stand at 10 and kick the ball 60 metres'. It worked very well. We played in Wales's half and Jonny kicked his goals."

To counter the threat of Serge Betsen, Catt also featured in the semi-final against France, and was on the bench for the final against Australia. "Clive told me he was going to pick Mike Tindall at 13 and he hadn't made his mind up between me and Will Greenwood for the 12 jersey. Against all my principles, I told him to go for Greenwood.

"I was physically battered after the French game and thought the best contribution I could make for the team is if I came off the bench. I'm glad it went to extra time. It meant I played 23 minutes instead of three."

Catt had the last touch in the World Cup victory, kicking the ball dead to signal England's victory. Despite the euphoria of 2003, Catt argues that the world did not see England at their best. "When Brian Ashton was in charge of the backs we played some brilliant stuff in the seasons leading up to the World Cup, regularly putting 40 and 50 points on good teams. We were encouraged to play with vision and flair.

"When Clive supervised the backs all of a sudden it was a lot more structured and we lost our expansive style. Just look at Ben Cohen. When we were playing with freedom he was scoring tries all the time. Since then he has been restricted to bashing his way up the middle.

"Clive's system worked because we won the World Cup, but it wasn't that enjoyable to play in. I would love to relive those years when England were on fire. It was a bit like Bath in their heyday."

London Irish, who play Worcester at the Madejski Stadium today, will have to go some to get anywhere near Bath's list of achievements, but physically and mentally - Irish receive mental-skills coaching from a company called Gazing Performance - Catt believes the squad are in good shape.

"I think we are going to surprise a few sides. I know where I'd rather be. Bath haven't won anything for ages and have lost world-class players like Tindall, Balshaw and Maggs. It's a bit bizarre."

He forgets to mention himself. Unlike some players of a similar vintage, Catt has not announced his retirement from Test rugby. "You never know what might happen. I still want to be one of the best, and as soon as I lose that I'll pack in. At the moment I'm pretty chilled."