Outsider comes in from the cold

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Recalled at 35 after a five-year absence from England’s starting line-up in the RBS 6 Nations championship, and made captain into the bargain, the irresistible temptation is to ask quite how many rugby lives Mike Catt has.

The irony is that Catt’s recall,
to play inside centre and lead
England against France at Twickenham on Sunday, comes in the absence of the injured Jonny Wilkinson. The most successful of Catt’s previous England incarnations came when he played a New Zealand-style second five-eighth to Wilkinson’s first five, his sharp eye for incisive angles of attack amid the heavy traffic of the modern international midfield easing the creative burden on his outside-half.

Those qualities rescued England at their moments of greatest
peril in the 2003 World Cup: befuddled and trailing at half-time against Wales in the quarter-final, then forced into extra time in a match that should long have been won against Australia in the final.

Two years earlier the Catt-Wilkinson partnership, supplemented by the rocketing pace of full-back Iain Balshaw, produced the most dashingly imaginative performances of the Sir Clive Woodward era – far from coincidentally when Brian Ashton, now chief coach, guided the backs.

There is in Catt’s recall an element of payback for his ill-luck later in 2001. After seven years of shuttling around England’s back division in search of a permanent role, he had just found the one that made the best use of his diverse talents when he was struck down by injury. When he did return for the World Cup, it was as a characteristically Woodwardian rabbit-from-hat selection, a calculated risk after a long absence.

The hope now is that his steady, experienced hand will guide Toby Flood, the gifted rookie fly-half. It is the role of a veteran, creating space through subtle angles rather than power or blinding pace.

It will not be lost on the man Catt has replaced, the injured Andrew Farrell, that it echoes the function of the classic rugby league loose forward. Farrell’s misfortune is that he has instead taken on one of Catt’s earlier identities – the outsider who becomes a scapegoat in times of adversity.

It is a role equally recognisable to another man recalled to international colours this weekend, Scotland’s Australian-born outside-half Dan Parks. Scotland coach Frank Hadden defended Parks last year, saying: “The comments about him have been disgraceful and would not have happened if he had come from Stirling or Hawick.”

The Twickenham crowds who treated Catt so cruelly in his early days had no fundamental objection to his being South African – England have over the years fielded such fine old English names as Labuschagne and Van Ryneveld. But in a struggling team an obvious outsider, such as Parks or Catt, will come in for disproportionate criticism.

Farrell is not, of course, from another country, merely another rugby culture. The manner in which he was singled out after an England performance in Dublin that, as Ashton’s changes this week have underlined, was chiefly conspicuous for forward failure, was a reminder that rugby’s sectarian divide still exists.

That is not to say criticisms of Catt, Parks and Farrell have been unfounded. The outsider who obviously adds something to the team – as Jason Robinson did for England, the late-1990s generation of kilted Kiwis for Scotland or those dubiously registered, faux-Welshmen Shane Howarth and Brett Sinkinson for Graham Henry’s Wales – will be warmly adopted.

But fail to shine, and they will find themselves pretty friendless. When Neil Jenkins took an unfair share of the blame for Wales’s failings in the mid-1990s, he at least knew he remained an unmatched hero in his native Pontypridd. When Colin Charvis, a black man born in Walsall, struggled for
form as Wales’s captain, he was rewarded by a ludicrous opinion poll declaring him second only to Saddam Hussein in unpopularity.

Catt will have been preoccupied this week with the men chosen to face France. One suspects, though, he may find time next week to tell squadmate Farrell: “I know what it is like – and it can turn out all right in the end.”

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