Ireland trained at Aviva Stadium yesterday. Billy Stickland/INPHO
mike catt

Ireland confident they can 'thrive' under pressure from Felix Jones' defensive system

Attack coach Mike Catt says Andy Farrell’s squad will “love the challenge” of taking on England in Twickenham.

RETURNING TO TWICKENHAM is always a special occasion for Mike Catt, a World Cup winner who won 75 caps across his decorated career as an England international.

Next week’s Six Nations meeting between Ireland and England in London will be no different, as Ireland’s attack coach prepare to be re-acquainted with some familiar faces.

Catt counts England head coach Steve Borthwick as a former teammate, with the two both on the books at Bath from the late-1990s through to the mid-2000s.

Now they’re on the other side of the sidelines. Catt has forged an impressive career as an attack coach, helping to mastermind an Ireland attacking system which is largely lauded as one of the best in the game. In 2022, Borthwick led Leicester Tigers to their first Premiership title in nine years, an achievement which then saw him parachuted into the England job when Eddie Jones was axed less than a year out from the 2023 World Cup.

Borthwick led England to a third place finish at the World Cup but his team have struggled for form and been criticised for their cautious gameplan. Yet Catt insists his old Bath teammate has the tools to get England humming again.

“Steve was, what would I call it, he was obsessive about rugby, you know,” Catt says.

“And I think that’s something that he was always going to do – go into coaching on the back of it, that whole obsession and desire to be successful.

I had him as a 17/18 year-old when he turned up at Bath and you’d be out on the pitch with me for a lot of hours, you know, he only wanted to be the best he could be. So I think that’s probably what he’s taking into his coaching stuff as well.

“He’s relatively new at it but, you know, he’s had a lot of experience under Eddie Jones and he’s been at the highest level in terms of the player too so he fully understands it.”

England’s attack has looked notably blunt in the tournament to date, scoring just six tries across their opening three games against Italy (won), Wales (won) and Scotland (lost). In the same time, Ireland have scored 15 tries in blasting past France, Italy and Wales.

mike-catt Mike Catt speaking to the media in Dublin yesterday. Nick Elliott / INPHO Nick Elliott / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland certainly appear to have the tools to contain this England attack but their defence is a more intriguing challenge, with former Ireland international Felix Jones joining from South Africa as defence coach after last year’s World Cup.

Borthwick’s squad are still in the early days of learning Jones’ defensive system which brought so much success for South Africa, and while there have been signs of progress, England have still been guilty of poor defensive errors as they look to get up to speed with a new way of defending.

Andy Farrell’s players are conscious of the challenges that defensive system can pose when implemented properly, but will also take confidence from their most recent encounters with that gameplan – beating South Africa at last year’s World Cup and when the Springboks came to Dublin in 2022.

“It’s very much helter-skelter and it’s line speed and it puts you under pressure and I think that’s always what we’ve thrived on as a team, especially over the last year, year and a half. Being able to embrace that pressure and having the skillset to be able to try and break it down,” Catt says.

And that’s the challenge we have and I think the boys love that challenge when something like that gets put in front of us.

“It’s not an easy challenge. It’s one that we have to think really hard about and in the moment you’ve got to be calm enough to execute stuff.”

It also helps that the bulk of the Ireland squad have been working with former South Africa head coach Jacques Nienaber this season. Nienaber helped guide the Springboks to back-to-back World Cups before joining Leinster after the 2023 tournament, and has spent the last few months implementing that same defensive plan at the province.

a-general-view-of-training Ireland held an open training session at Aviva Stadium yesterday. Nick Elliott / INPHO Nick Elliott / INPHO / INPHO

Catt hasn’t met up with Nienaber himself for a debrief, but has worked closely with the Leinster players within the Ireland squad as part of putting together a plan to down England in Twickenham.

“I haven’t [spoken to Nienaber], but obviously all the Leinster boys have been so I’ve sat down with all of them and we’ve discussed what happens and how it happens.

“I think if you do your homework properly [you can work it out], but trying to break it down is still very tough, especially with the physicality that comes with it in terms of the Springboks.

“The nice thing is we were able to do it. We’ve done it twice against a full-blown South African team so, again, we need to prepare ourselves like those matches.”

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