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Catt: You can't change past

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'It's that whole resilience and ability to get up and go again... the past is eaten bread'

They were the Fab Four, the brightest minds in the English game tasked with repeating the World Cup glory of 2003. England’s 2015 failure, though, quickly cost Stuart Lancaster, Andy Farrell, Graham Rowntree and Mike Catt their jobs… but they didn’t fall on hard times. 

Lancaster is credited with Leinster’s revival, Farrell is Ireland’s head-coach-in-waiting when Joe Schmidt departs at the end of this year, and Rowntree, who assisted with Farrell on the 2017 Lions, had a spell at Harlequins before linking up with Georgia. 

None of the trio have shunned the media limelight regarding their post-England careers. They’re still accessible and influence the news, but Catt has applied himself differently.

Working as Italy’s attack coach under Conor O’Shea, he has steered cleared and preferred to keep himself to himself. Once bitten, twice shy and all that.  He eventually broke his silence last year, giving an interview to 2003 England teammate Ben Kay.

But there was nothing else until he picked up the phone on Tuesday after kicking practice in Rome to give RugbyPass a rare insight into how life has really treated him since that dark winter of 2015 when Lancaster and his assistants were all bombed out of England roles they were contracted in until 2020. 

(Continue reading below…)

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There’s no beating about the bush in confronting the let-down. Catt has always lived by the premise that you have got to initially fail to be successful – and he now feels all the better as a Test level coach for England failing at their own World Cup.  

“You can’t change it,” he said. “I have learnt a hell of a lot from it. It was my first big coaching gig and I was still pretty inexperienced when I was doing that, but they are all learning experiences. 

“You have to fail before you win. I didn’t win a World Cup until I was 32 and, believe me, I had a lot of ups and downs in my career. It’s that whole resilience and ability to get up again and go again. That [the past] is what it is, eaten bread, and that’s what I do.

Gareth Davies scores the decisive Wales try during their 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool A match against England at Twickenham (Photo by Chris Lee – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

“You’re talking about 10 minutes of rugby, losing to Wales in the last 10 minutes of the game. That is what it [2015] boiled down to. Wales did it again the other week to England. They are a formidable side.”

Now 47, it was Catt’s old London Irish connection with Conor O’Shea that tempted him to take up the daunting challenge of turning whipping boys Italy into a far more competitive entity. 

It’s been a slow fix. Management have savoured just six wins in 31 outings and have struggled to end an inherited Six Nations losing streak that now counts up to 20 matches. Catt doesn’t dwell on these stark numbers, though. His bigger picture says hidden improvements are occurring and the outlook isn’t as dark as it’s generally made out. 

Mike Catt, Italy’s assistant coach, looks on prior to the Guinness Six Nations match against Scotland at Murrayfield (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“Conor got me up to London Irish in 2004 and I’d some good years there playing and coaching. Working with Conor, I knew what sort of environment he creates. 

“I knew I could definitely complement his enthusiasm and his ability to create these environments with some technical support. It has been tough, but in the same breath it has been very good. 

“I’ve learnt a hell of a lot about myself and coaching in different environments. I’ve had to learn a new language. It has been brilliant for me from a coaching perspective.

England players Kyran Bracken (left), Ben Kay, Mike Catt and Neil Back (right) with the Webb Ellis Cup during England’s 2003 World Cup victory parade in London (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“It has been hugely rewarding and I’ve really had to dig into all the depths to find out how to coach these guys, how to get these guys to believe in themselves that they can compete against the best in the world,” explained Catt, the Port Elizabeth-born South African whose move to Bath in 1992 transformed his own playing career.

“That has been the challenge for me with this group of players, that we can grow. Conor has created a brilliant environment. There is still massive issues with certain things around the system, but Steve Aboud and all those guys are putting this in place and it is not an easy fix. There is no easy fix. This is the reality of it and we are in the middle of it and we have got to try and perform. 

“I know everybody is talking about 19, 20 losses and whatever. For us it’s about small wins, small margins that we just need to keep building on because the others teams that we’re playing against in a World Cup year are all capable of probably winning a World Cup.

Italy players sing their national anthem before the 2019 Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland in Rome (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

“When you’re in this system and understand what it’s all about, not the hardships but where the team has come from, what did Conor take over, all that sort of stuff, it’s an easy step to be involved and we’re getting players that are growing. Tito Tebaldi the other week against Ireland performed exceptionally well and our tight five, they stood up.

“Little things like that make a huge difference for us, be we have still got a lot to learn. We’re at the start of the cycle rather than on an eight-year thing like Owen Farrell, all these England guys who have been together for eight, nine years. This group really has only been together for two, three years other than Sergio (Parisse) and (Leonardo) Ghiraldini. We’re at the start off a process and it takes two World Cup cycles really to make the next jump up. 

“That’s the reality of it. We’re 15th in the world for a reason – although that’s a bit unfair too because we’re playing all the big sides all the time. It’s not an excuse, but these guys know where they are going and it just takes time to get there.

Edoardo Padovani (No14) celebrates after scoring Italy’s first try during the 2019 Guinness Six Nations match against Ireland at Stadio Olimpico (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

“The other sides have become so good, but we knew that. Having worked with England for four years prior to this role, we said that 2019 was England’s year really because of the experience of the players at the 2015 World Cup.”

The England Four went their separate ways in difficult circumstances, but three currently have similar work practices as Catt’s commute to Rome from England mirrors Lancaster’s work in Ireland and Rowntree’s in Georgia. They all fly in when needed. It’s a lifestyle that suits Catt just fine.

“I was living in Italy, but we put the kids back into UK schools. I commute over and back. International rugby is a brilliant lifestyle because you have got a real good family/work balance.

Mike Catt, right, with John Callard and Tony Swift, celebrates Bath’s 1994 Pilkington Cup final win at Twickenham (Photo: David Rogers/Allsport)

“With three young kids, my family is massively important and they can come and visit me in Rome, have a week here, watch a game of rugby and see all the sights. That plays in well to the whole family thing… it [commuting] works because what you can do is just focus on what you need to do when you’re here in Italy, so it’s easy.”

The Italian language isn’t his strongest attribute. “I understand a lot of it. When I have a beer I can speak it,” he said laughing. “The guys are absolutely fair and brilliant. I left school for a reason, to be a rugby player.

“The language has been quite difficult, but also in the same breath it has been really good because I have had to change the way I coach and present. I’ll look back at this challenge, depending when it ends of course, with a lot of fondness. I’ve probably learned more in this than I have anywhere else.”

England skipper Dylan Hartley (centre) and James Haskell talk to referee Romain Poite (right) during the confusion caused by Italy’s no-ruck approach in 2017’s Twickenham Six Nations match (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

Twickenham has a special place in Catt’s heart. Thirty-four of his 75 England caps were won at the south-west London rugby cathedral while 26 of his 46 England matches as assistant to Lancaster also took place there.

His first return to his old stamping ground in 2017 became infamous for the no-contest ruck approach adopted by Italy to exploit an offside loophole that has since been close. Is there another ploy up the sleeve this weekend when the Azzurri visit again? 

“We have read over the rule book about 50,000 times and we have’t come up with a new one yet. I think it’s time we just do what we have to do… we put in a competitive performance against Ireland and need to back it up against one of the best teams in the world, possibly a World Cup-winning side this year.

Mike Catt was on board the team bus in 2014 when England mascot Peter Cross waved the flag as they arrived at Twickenham to play Ireland (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“I have got so many fond memories of Twickenham. It’s an amazing place. I love going there. The people there have been very supportive over the years so for me going back to where it all started, it’s huge. Very fond memories.

“It has been a while since I have been there, but I’m not a person that looks too deep into things. I love the occasion, love the fans, love everything about Twickenham. But it’s just another game played in an amazing stadium.

“It’s not about me, it’s about a group of players that are going over and need to put in a good performance. Unfortunately we’re getting England on the back of a loss like we have had New Zealand twice after Ireland beat them. 

“There is going to be not a backlash but there’s going to be a huge anticipation from England to really produce the goods again. We need to be prepared for that.”

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'It's that whole resilience and ability to get up and go again... the past is eaten bread'