x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The Catt with two lives

The England legend Mike Catt still serves his sport as a player and a coach, but still remains as elusive as ever.

Mike Catt, left, is getting increasingly comfortable in his role as a coach.
Mike Catt, left, is getting increasingly comfortable in his role as a coach.

Mike Catt remains just as elusive as he was in his glorious pomp. "I'm just going in to see my bank manager, literally just outside his door," the World Cup-winning rugby player said apologetically. "Any chance you can call me back in an hour?" So I called him back. Three times. No joy. An hour later, a text message arrived. "I'll be on the phone from about five UK time."

However, the newly specified rendezvous time was still not quite right. "Do you mind if I just say goodbye to my wife? Honestly, just two minutes, thanks." All the neat side-stepping provided enough time to contemplate when exactly was Catt's glorious pomp? He was already a veteran when, seconds after Jonny Wilkinson's dropped-goal, he punted "The Second Most Important Kick in the History of English Rugby" into row-Z to seal World Cup glory in 2003. Four years later, he was the oldest swinger in an England team that went on to contest the Webb Ellis Trophy again in the final against his native South Africa.

And he is still going now. At 37, his player-coach role at the Guinness Premiership club London Irish sees him playing more than many would have expected. When we are finally connected, he could not be any sweeter. "Sorry about all that - it's half-term and I've just dropped my family back in Bath. Now I'm driving back to London for training." It does not take a great leap of imagination to picture Catt as the doting father, such is the age-gap between him and the majority of his teammates in the Irish backline. And the Exiles must be grateful to have his paternalistic instincts to guide their bright young things, such as England hopefuls Shane Geraghty, 22, and Topsy Ojo, 23.

Ojo, the winger, was one of the four players investigated by the English RFU over unseemly allegations made during the summer tour of New Zealand. Unsurprisingly, Catt leaps to Ojo's defence. "He had a bad time in New Zealand, along with Danny Care, Mike Brown and David Strettle," he said. "It all went a little bit pear-shaped for Topsy. "You can't put yourself in that situation - but in the same breath, what did he do wrong? He is a 23-year-old having a good time - what did you do as a 23-year-old?

"This is where I think you have to be careful. Yes, if he had [done the things stated in the allegations], by all means bring the whole town on him. But nothing like that was the case. The RFU fined him for getting in at 7am - that was it." The kiss-and-tell stories that came out of the tour were a graphic example that rugby has lost much of the innocence of its pre-professional days. No longer are Premier League footballers the only sportsmen the tabloids are interested in.

Yet Catt believes today's players still have reasons to be thankful. "I'm not sad about it at all," he said. "That is the nature of the beast, and with professionalism that was always going to happen. "These boys now are earning a lot of money at a young age and they do enjoy themselves, but they look after themselves as well. "Topsy hardly ever drinks, and there are lots of guys, like Danny Cipriani, [the England fly-half] who can go out until 2am and not touch a sip of alcohol. It is a matter of getting the balance right."

Catt's longevity in the game is testament to the fact he has been able to maintain that balance. But, he laughs off the idea of playing alongside former England colleagues Austin Healey and Will Greenwood at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, saying: "I'm a bit old in the legs now, mate." Healey and Greenwood, despite being long since retired, are both younger than Catt. "I'd still love to, but because I'm still playing, I'm not allowed to play in the sevens in case I pick up an injury."

An appearance at the next World Cup, by which time he will be 40, is unlikely - but he could be there as a coach. "I had a few chats with Martin Johnson about it," Catt said regarding his rumoured move to join the England coaching set-up after Johnson became manager. He added: "The only problem was Johnno couldn't offer me a full-time job. "He said that in a year's time maybe that would become available, but he couldn't promise me that.

"I have a lot to learn about coaching. Cutting my teeth at club level first has been brilliant." pradley@thenational.ae