Attitude rather than altitude will be key for Ireland in South Africa, says Mike Catt

Ireland backs’ coach says team motivated by prospect of first Test series win in South Africa

The South Africa tour will be Mike Catt's last assignment with the Ireland team. Photograph: Tom Maher/Inpho

Mike Catt pursues a zero-excuse culture in discussing Ireland’s two-Test tour to South Africa. That goes for any difficulty of playing at altitude, absent friends in Jamison Gibson-Park and Hugo Keenan, or any perceived legacy issues arising from Leinster and Munster’s disappointing end to the season.

Ireland’s ethos is to focus on the solution not the problem. Catt, in his last assignment as Ireland backs’ coach before handing over those duties to Andrew Goodman – the New Zealander travels to South Africa as part of the backroom team – is all about embracing the challenges with a positive mindset.

He pointed to Ireland having never won a Test series in South Africa as a huge motivation. The South African-born, former England World Cup winner doesn’t dabble in platitudes. “It’s a huge challenge, they are world champions in their own backyard but it’s embracing it and enjoying it; a series win in South Africa has never been done before.

“[It] is another challenge for this team, the coaches, the backroom staff. It is awesome, exciting; let’s go and face it head on.” Asked about altitude, he ventured: “What did Glasgow do? Don’t make something that’s not [relevant to us].


“Whenever you put on an Irish shirt, whoever you are playing against, it is hard, it’s tough, you have got to take yourself to a dark side. It is no different when we turn up in Loftus on June 6th [for the first Test].

“You have to take yourself to a level and that’s the challenge, can you take yourself to a level where you are thinking correctly, you are making your decisions in the heat of the battle? It is the same for both sides too. If you are talking about altitude, not everyone plays at altitude in South Africa so don’t worry about it.”

The general theme in the conversation is one of opportunity. Catt cited the Emerging Ireland tour to 2022 as a pivotal developmental insight and marker not just for players but coaches too.

Sam Prendergast in training in Pretoria. Photograph: Christian Kotze/Steve Haag Sports/Inpho

“Having the likes of Paul O’Connell coach you, Simon Easterby, those guys, you’re getting that information in there nice and early and then when you watch Ireland you can relate to what’s going on because you understand it. And the more you understand something the more confident you become at it and your development can go through the roof.”

Sam Prendergast is a principal beneficiary, one of three uncapped players in the Irish squad. Catt said: “I think that his ceiling is very high, he is very confident. He runs the week very, very well.

“Obviously for the future he can learn a lot from this environment. He deserves an opportunity, that is what we have gone with.” Will it accelerate his development? “Hugely,” said Catt.

“When you are surrounded by the best of the best all the time, you won’t have an opportunity to play with a Bundee [Aki] or those guys around him, it is making sure that he sucks up all the atmosphere and the intelligence from the players around him and understands what it is all about.”

Asked whether Prendergast reminded him of any outhalf he came across in his own career, Catt smiled and replied: “[He’s] very confident, he’s got a very, very high skill set, he’s got a great torpedo [kick] as well, a spiral which is very old school; I love a spiral, that’s why he’s picked.

“No, it’s his confidence and his aura, just being with this environment and this group can accelerate his development even more.” So, he does remind him of someone? “I won’t say who it is,” said a laughing Catt.

South African players such as Damian de Allende, Eben Etzebeth and Cheslin Kolbe have been stoking the fires verbally in advance of the series, but Catt isn’t going to bite back. “It doesn’t matter. It’s great for the game and great for the hype, but from our point of view it’s business as usual. You can’t dwell on all those things. You don’t use it.

“We know what we need to do to go to South Africa and try to win a series. That’s all it is. All the white noise on the side of it doesn’t even come into it. We know where we’re going, and the players have to get to a certain level to get there. So, we’ll focus on the stuff we can control.”

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer