Mike Catt is coaching exactly how he played in Ireland’s World Cup tilt

Ireland coach grew up in South Africa, played for England, and now has a key role in ‘amazing environment’ at Rugby World Cup

Things that you might know about Mike Catt. He was born in Port Elizabeth on South Africa’s, Eastern Cape, won 75 caps for England, four Six Nations titles, played in four Rugby World Cups, was on the winning team in 2003 and a beaten finalist in 2007, and claimed three English Premiership titles and a European Cup with Bath, playing outhalf, centre, wing and fullback.

Other things that you might know about Mike Catt. He was the England fullback that late Jonah Lomu ran over when scoring that famous try in the 1995 World Cup match, he was dropped on multiple occasions during his England career, booed at Twickenham, captained England, was a player coach at London Irish and a backs’ coach with England and Italy before taking the role with Ireland.

What you shouldn’t know about Mike Catt. When the television camera panned down the England line before Test matches, he used to flick an ear when it alighted on him, a secret sign to his family thanking them for their support. He went to Clive Woodward on the eve of the 2003 World Cup final to tell him that he didn’t think he was fit enough to start to be told that he would be on the bench.

Mike Catt grew up wanting to play rugby for South Africa and emulate his heroes, Danie Gerber, Naas Botha and the Du Plessis brothers, Michael and Carel. A barefoot athlete from childhood, he adored the outdoor lifestyle afforded to him and his three brothers, Doug, Pete and Rich, the sunshine, hot summers and benign winter climate, living next to a beach and the compulsory two hours of sport a day at school.


Grey High School in Port Elizabeth has produced more Springboks than any other college, one of which is the current South African captain, Siya Kolisi, a statistic that’s easier to understand on learning that all pupils were required to play two summer and two winter sports. Catt lapped up football, athletics, cricket, triathlon but rugby was his favourite. He also did life-saving.

His life in 1970s and 1980s South Africa was sheltered from apartheid as he conceded in his autobiography Landing on My Feet. “Government censorship ruled. You never read anything in the newspapers or saw or heard anything on the television and radio, which led you to query the status quo.”

It was only when he got to England that the full horrors and ugliness of the apartheid regime, the depravation, subjugation, segregation and the violence were graphically revealed. In the bubble of his Port Elizabeth life, Catt’s priority was playing sport, academia wasn’t his thing, and without a professional outlet for rugby at the time he had his eye on another career.

He explained: “I would probably have become a nature conservationist. I love animals, being in the outdoors. My mum is an honorary ranger in one of the local elephant parks in South Africa. I would have loved to have done that. A lot of my mates are farmers, so we spent a lot of time on the farms.

“That was the other option for me. Sport was amateur at the time so I didn’t really know what would happen, so I went on a wing and a prayer and hoped it did. Thankfully it went pro in 1995/1996.”

The son of a South African father, Jimmy, and an English-born mother, Anne from Kent, Catt had to develop resilience at a young age in cultivating a hard veneer to encase his emotions as it helped to insulate him against those who viewed him as an outsider. He spent most of his rugby career being regarded as English in South Africa and South African in England.

He wasn’t fluent in Afrikaans, he could understand it, but perhaps more germane from a rugby perspective was he was quickly appraised that the outsized farming boys relished imposing their physicality; a polite way of saying they love to batter ye. Anyway, growing up with three brothers, two older, meant that you took your fair share of backyard beatdowns.

Catt didn’t back off the challenge. “It really gave me a drive to be competitive and to really prove myself. I was very lucky, a lot of injuries along the way that I snuck into teams and then took my opportunity on the back of it. My motto has always been, “be ready for the opportunity,” which he was from the onset, playing for the Eastern Province Sevens team as a 17-year-old.

Philosophical about being cast as an outsider in some eyes he said: “I didn’t look deeply into it as a person, and I still don’t look deeply into things. I loved the game. It was my escape and if I got the rewards on the back of me loving a game then fantastic. It didn’t really bother me that I was English in an Afrikaans environment or that I was South African in an English environment.

“There are times where things happen, getting booed in front of 70,000 people at Twickenham wasn’t ideal, but these things make you understand you love the game even more and you will always succeed because you love it and are passionate about it.”

At 21, Catt wanted to head for Australia, but his father insisted that he go and see his grandparents in England. He walked into Bath rugby club on spec, looking for a game. Jack Rowell was coach, Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott, Ben Clarke, Phil de Glanville and Andy Robinson, a sample of the marquee talent.

Catt worked his way into the team, a brilliant running threat, a superb distributor with a better than decent kicking game. When Rowell took the England job, he invited Catt to play for the country of his mother’s birth. He enjoyed a superb career, notable for quality content, achievement and longevity.

His game was predicated on being fitter than anyone else and it’s still a principal to which he subscribes as a coach. He morphed from player to coach at London Irish in fulfilling both roles before graduating to national set-ups. A strong friendship with Andy Farrell dating back to their playing days together, precipitated his arrival in the Irish coaching set-up.

So, what would Catt the coach make of Catt the player? “It’d be a nightmare,” he laughed. In the amateur days you didn’t really have a structure or a framework, you just played the game. Now, it is team structure, so everyone understands what they are doing but you need to be yourself within that structure.

“That’s exactly what we are asking the guys to do here really. This is what we want to do, this is why we want to do it, but you can be whoever you want to be within that environment or framework.

“The guys with the X-factor, your Mack Hansens, James Lowes, those sort of guys, Caelan Doris’, they make good decisions on the back of being in that (team framework). Ultimately it is the decision you make. Was it the right decision? Yes or no. Did you execute? Yes or no, or why you did or didn’t.

“(Was it that) you weren’t in the position to be able to do it or do you practice it? Are you just doing it willy-nilly. Some of them come off, sometimes they don’t. Life is decision making. It’s the same in a game of rugby.

“You decide whether you are going to tackle low or tackle high. If you go high there is a chance you are going to get red carded, full stop. That’s your choice no one else’s, your choice.

“I coach exactly how I played, the picture you see is the picture you play. These are your options that you have got; with that you must be calm, and you must be confident, you need to trust yourself to be able to do that.

Catt laughs, when asked whether he regales his charges with his experiences as a player; there’s no time for comedy. “They find out for themselves; we have a lot of experience in the team. They have lost games, won games. There are some guys who have no baggage whatsoever, Caelan Doris, Hugo Keenan, guys that are flying it.”

What is more interesting in eliciting his views on the Ireland group. Catt’s won a World Cup, he’s lost a final, he’s played with and against generational talent. There would be a certain bias given his role but his insight, the little things that he focuses on provide a rare window into Farrell’s regime.

He answered without hesitation when asked about what, if anything, impressed him straight away about working with the Ireland squad. “The fitness, and no egos, is unbelievable. Having grown up in an English system you have always had these egos everywhere, you had to deal with them whereas in here there are none. It is so nice.

“You are not spending any extra time or emotional energy to try and rein people in. That was one of the biggest positives for me, the fitness and then their want to learn, very studious, very detailed. A lot of the time I was learning more from them than they were from me. We were trying to create an environment where they can calm down and just play the game, get to make good decisions. They have been brilliant at it.”

There is no need to pander to the Irish psyche and snuggle against the underdog comfy blanket. Catt argued that the squad can embrace favouritism and expectation based on performances and results. “It’s what it should be. That’s what normal is,” when you are the number one side in the world.

He continued: “We have good enough players here, a brilliant coaching staff; Andy’s created this amazing environment to play in, so why not? It should become normal with the quality of players that we have got. It doesn’t mean that you are going to go on and win a World Cup. What it does do is put yourself in a position to be able to go on and win a World Cup.

“It is them (the players) understanding that and that they have done it themselves. Andy has put in an environment where everyone needs to be open and honest like every other coach says they do but I believe when Andy says about being open and honest, that he is genuine about it.

“Players feel this genuineness from Andy, and they can voice their opinions. They have taken on board what they need to and worked it out. That’s what it is all about, them believing about how good they are. And they are ... a bloody good rugby side. Why be an underdog, why worry about it?”

Catt pointed to the fact that “the stars need to align” for teams to win tournaments like the World Cup but while the firmament does its thing, back down on terra firma, Ireland must do theirs and that alignment has a definite shape, the mental, the physical, and the emotional, tuned to the right pitch. Farrell, his coaching cohort and the players, are in a good place.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer