Woodward explains Catt choice

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The Independent Online

Five months ago, Mike Catt was wondering what the future might hold on the employment front. He was not exactly destitute - the man widely labelled as England's first professional rugby union player had been earning good money at Bath from the moment the sport went open in 1995 - but his fitness was poor, his appetite was low and his club was down among the dead-beats at the foot of the Premiership table. World Cup duty was the last thing on his mind.

Happily, it was not the last thing on Clive Woodward's mind, although the England coach had been profoundly underwhelmed by Catt's form at the end of last season.

"I saw more of Mike than virtually any other player, and every time I left the ground I was shaking my head with frustration," Woodward said yesterday, explaining why he had selected the midfielder ahead of Austin Healey in his 30-man party for next month's tournament in Australia. "He was playing injured and I wasn't at all happy with the way he was conducting himself. I wanted to take three outside-halves, and if he could prove his fitness he was always going to be considered. When Alex King pulled out last week, the decision was fairly simple."

While Catt confessed that last season had been a "lonely ride", and admitted that Bath's predicament had left him fretting over his livelihood - a circumstance that forced him into playing when half-fit - it emerged that James Simpson-Daniel's state of semi-fitness led Woodward to ignore the brilliant young Gloucester three-quarter's claims for a place in the squad and plump for Dan Luger, the Perpignan-bound former Harlequin, instead.

"I don't think James is quite the player we were dealing with a year ago," Woodward said, bluntly. "Medically, he isn't absolutely there."

Luger, a Lions Test certainty in 2001 until Neil Back dented his eye socket in a freak training-ground accident, is not exactly in the pink himself; indeed, he missed Saturday's final warm-up match against France because of a back strain. But his form behind closed doors has been of the vintage variety and he is confidently expected to press for a starting place in the opening World Cup pool fixture against Georgia in Perth on 12 October.

"We know we're among the favourites and it doesn't scare us," Woodward pronounced. "We've given ourselves every chance of achieving something very special, but it is no more than a chance. The hard work starts now."