'We played the expansive game in training, but when it came to matches we reverted to the 10-man game, and that was down to Rob Andrew. It was so frustrating... In all our matches, we kept telling Rob to pass but, when the times came, he kicked'

FACE TO FACE; Mike Catt, England's new stand-off, wants to lead his team into an era of expansion. Ian Stafford met him
Click to follow
The Independent Online
If you stand outside the main office at Bath RFC and examine the Recreation Ground, it tells you everything you need to know about a changing sport in this country.

To the left stands row after row of temporary seating, low and dominated by scaffolding with the city's grassy recreation area immediately behind it. Ah, the good old amateur game. Kick the ball over this metal monstrosity and, given half a chance, the kids will run off with it.

But immediately in front of you lies the club's new, and highly impressive stand, complete with row after row of corporate boxes. The "Teachers Stand" - named after the whisky sponsors and not rugby coaches - is a testament to the "new" game rapidly emerging.

So, too, is Mike Catt, the 24-year-old Bath and England stand-off, and a professional product manufactured long before the idea came into being. You cannot actually escape the man at the Recreation Ground, mainly because posters are placed all over the shop advertising his book, The Quest for the Ultimate Grand Slam, out next week. Oh yes, Mike Catt embodies everything about the professional game of rugby union.

A South African who came to England in 1992 and within a short space of time played for Bath, England Under-21s and the full national team, Catt will face his old country next weekend in his favourite position for the first time at international level. Yet, as Michael Corleone once said: "It's not personal, it's strictly business".

"I've always wanted to be a professional sportsman, ever since I can remember," he explains fresh from a training schedule. "As kids, all my three brothers and I did back home in Port Elizabeth was play sport. Rugby, soccer, athletics, triathlon, you name it, we did it. I didn't want to work for a living. I wanted sport to be my job."

But it was rugby, of course, that young Catt and his mates worshipped in a land where the sport has always been a religion. "Sure, I dreamed of scoring a winning try in the green, Springbok jersey. We all did. I was still dreaming about it three years ago."

What changed, though, was his inability to prosper back home, and a chance created during a visit to Bath to see his grandparents. "I played for Eastern Province as fly-half until I was dropped just before I left for England," he continues.

"We kept losing every match. At club level you put your boxing gloves on and beat the crap out of each other. After a few weeks in Bath, I went down to the club and had a couple of sessions. As soon as I saw the likes of Jerry Guscott and Stuart Barnes, I knew this was the place where my rugby was going to improve. After one game for Bath, I was selected for the England Under-21 team. That made me decide to stay and play my rugby here."

It seemed like a strange admission coming from a South African. Why would he give the northern hemisphere amateurs the nod over the professionals, in every sense of the word, back home? "It would have taken me another four years to have made the Springbok team, if at all. I'd have been looking at the 1999 World Cup, not this year's.

"Let's just say that politically the odds were stacked against me. I'm an EP man, not someone from Transvaal, and I was an English-speaking South African. Not many of those around in the national team! In the end I didn't care whether I played rugby in a green, white or pink jersey. I just wanted to play at the highest level."

His wish came true, making the England full-back position his own for 12 caps, thanks mainly to his exciting, running style of full-back play. Throughout this time it was Catt who took the most professional stance out of all the England team.

"I'm still a South African," he tells you. "Always have been, always will be. But the important point to make is that I'll always give 100 per cent to England. I perform as a professional, and that means that there's no way I would try harder if I played for South Africa. The way I see it, I might have dreamt of working for Dunlop, but ended up at Pirelli.

"I might still like to play for South Africa, but there's no way I ever will. My future's with England and English rugby. I've spent 90 per cent of my life in South Africa, so I'm not just going to leave it, but that has no influence when I walk on to a rugby pitch."

It is pretty obvious that this is a crucial point he wants to get across. In this new, corporate world, players like Catt no longer need to find passion for a country or a cause. He is a professional and as far as he is concerned that ends all arguments. With this in mind it is no wonder he sides with Devon Malcolm and Phil DeFreitas over their successful battle in the courts against Wisden for what were deemed racist comments.

"I agree completely with Malcolm and DeFreitas," he says. "If you don't perform 100 per cent, you're laying your place, your reputation and your livelihood on the line. Don't tell me people don't give their all because they were born in a different country, because that's a load of crap."

He pauses before delivering the final verdict. "If they'd said the same about me, I'd have sued them as well."

All this may sound aggressive, but Catt is actually in high spirits, and not just because he is the new England stand-off. "I didn't want to say this before the team was chosen, just in case I stayed at full-back, but I wanted both myself and Jon Callard playing."

No, Catt is upbeat because he is already enjoying the new era. "I packed in my job as a marketing executive before the World Cup to concentrate on last-minute preparations, and also because I had a fair idea everything would change afterwards.

"Now, I love my new life. I don't have to feel guilty and plead with my boss for extra time off work. I can do exactly what I like, when I like. I means I can train properly without feeling knackered after a day in an office and, as a result, I feel a lot fitter."

It has produced without doubt a better player. "For a start I'm mentally sharper. Before, I'd get home on a Friday night after a hard week in the office and think: 'God, I've got to play rugby tomorrow.' It was difficult to pick yourself up for it.

"Now I really look forward to Saturday, because your whole week is geared towards the game, and because it is such good fun to play for Bath this season."

This season, as opposed to last season, then? "In a sense yes, because we've all come back from the World Cup knowing that the only way the northern hemisphere can take on the rest is by playing the expansive game, which is what we're doing at Bath. We're letting our talent come out, whereas last season we never relaxed, and worried too much about the World Cup."

We will see more evidence of this at Twickenham, where an England side fielding Catt at stand-off, rather than the recently retired and increasingly maligned Rob Andrew, intends to throw the ball around, and actually employ its world-class backs. But surely it did not take the World Cup to work this out?

"No, the players all knew before. That's why we played the expansive game in training, but when it came to the actual matches we reverted to the 10-man game, and that was down to Rob.

"It was so frustrating. I remember especially during the Five Nations game against Wales, when there were so many opportunities out wide. I was screaming for the ball from Rob, we all were. In all our matches, we kept telling Rob to pass but, when the times came, he kicked.

"I talked to Jerry Guscott about it, and he told me. "I've had to put up with it for five years, so I don't worry about it." He's sick and tired of chasing balls, and I totally agree with him. Jerry and Will Carling are the best centres in the world, but they haven't been allowed to cut loose, and that boils down to one man.

"Don't get me wrong, Rob's also won a lot of game for England, and he's gone out at the top, but you can't have a kicking fly-half any more."

Ironically, Andrew's winning drop-goal against Australia in the World quarter-final was just about the only bright moment of what turned out to be a miserable English campaign. It highlighted, according to Catt, another failing.

"We treated the game like the final, and never recovered. In general, English sportspeople don't possess a mental toughness. I've grown up elsewhere, in far more competitive surroundings, so I believe I'm different in this department.

"Look at England's tour to South Africa in 1994, for example. In the first Test, we put on a great display, but the next week, in the second Test, we were mentally drained, couldn't do a thing right, and were stuffed. An English side can't pick itself up twice in a row."

The resulting semi-final against New Zealand therefore turned into an embarrassing one-sided affair, thanks largely to Jonah Lomu who, in scoring his first try, memorably used Catt as a doormat on his way to the line.

"I'd never even heard of the guy until a week before we faced him, and never actually saw him until the night before," Catt admits. "We sat down to watch a video of New Zealand versus Scotland, and I saw what the man did to Gavin Hastings. I thought, if he can do that to him, what's he going to do to me? Then I told myself that he wouldn't get the opportunity, and he shouldn't have done."

"As far as I can see, the Lomu tries were mainly down to one individual. He had a number of chances to close him down, but instead gave him space, and that made the man unstoppable. I accept that I should have held Lomu, or at least done something to him over that first try, but in trying to balance himself up from stumbling, he didn't even see me until his shoulders thumped into me. He should have been taken out before he got to me."

If you have not guessed, by the way, then Catt is talking about his England colleague, Tony Underwood. What, then does he make of the pizza advertisement on television, involving Tony, Rory Underwood, their Mum, and Lomu?

"It doesn't bother me much, but I know that a lot of the players have commented that it's admitting defeat. They've taken offence to it, and don't like it at all. If Lomu ever comes up against Tony again, he'll have an even bigger upper hand now."

Tough talking, then, from the man who, injury and form permitting, might well prove to be the pivotal point of English rugby into the next century. It all begins at Twickenham, against the world champions.

"We know that we're still capable of beating any team in the world, and I believe our backs are good enough to succeed the first time we play an expansive game. Yes, of course, we can beat South Africa."

What, though, in this new professional era, will Catt do if the unthinkable happens, and he is dropped?

He fixed you with a compelling look, and delivers a reply brimming with utter conviction. "Oh, well, you see, I'd get straight back in the side. I've been dropped once in my life, by Eastern Province. I hated it. I'm not saying I'll never get dropped. But if I do, it won't be for long."

Nothing personal, just strictly business.

MIKE CATT ON NATIONALITY 'I'm still a South African. Always have been, always will be. But the important point is that I'll always give 100 per cent to England... There's no way I would try harder for South Africa'

MIKE CATT ON THAT PIZZA AD 'A lot of the players have commented that it's admitting defeat. They've taken offence to it... If Lomu ever comes up against Tony again, he'll have an even bigger upper hand now'