Dallaglio admits his surprise at English revival
Lawrence Dallaglio admits to raising an eyebrow at England's transformation from World Cup embarrassments to World Cup finalists in the space of a calendar month – not, perhaps, the grand gesture we have come to expect from the celebrated former captain, but as he expects to play an active role in this weekend's climactic meeting with the Springboks, he is in no position to reveal the true depth of his astonishment.
John Wells, the forwards coach, was more forthcoming yesterday. Asked to explain the sudden explosion of passionate intensity among his charges, he replied: "If I knew where it came from, I'd bottle it and sell it."
Wells has had a hard time of it since assuming control of the England pack from Andy Robinson after Twickenham's "day of the long knives" some 18 months ago. Robinson may have struggled for results as head coach, but when his forwards took the field, they at least had a whiff of gunpowder about them. While there has been no shortage of powder flying around under Wells, it has been the wrong kind of powder. Somewhere along the line, the 'gun' gave way to the 'puff'.
All that changed the Saturday before last, when the red-rose forwards suffocated the Wallabies in the Marseilles quarter-final. It was the kind of performance Wells helped produce on hundreds of occasions during his long playing career at Leicester, where he forged himself a reputation as the best uncapped back-row forward in England – the kind of performance his many supporters assumed he would immediately conjure up as a Test coach.
It has taken him far longer than he imagined, and he has been bitterly frustrated as a result. Yesterday, he seemed much happier with life. "Something clicked," he said. "Something happened to make the players strive that little bit harder, and it put them in a position from where they were able to beat the French in the semi-final. If I was frustrated by the failure in getting a performance from the forwards, it was because I knew it was there. I just hope they have one more in them.
"Why has it happened now? Without intending any disrespect to Samoa, our game against them after the heavy defeat by the Springboks was probably the right game at the right time. We could have been in an Ireland scenario, with three really strong teams in the group. Instead, we found ourselves in a different kind of fixture.
"It was a big physical challenge, and there was a moment when the Samoans were only 26-22 down, camped on our line, and with their tails up. It was a defining moment for us. We drew massive confidence from coming through that crisis in the way we did."
Unsurprisingly, given the recent transformation in fortunes, Wells was not the only coach feeling better about himself. Mike Ford, the defence specialist, saw weeks and months of planning bear fruit against the French. "In terms of statistics, it was our best ever performance," he revealed. "Generally speaking, 20 system errors or less gives you a decent chance of winning a game. In the semi-final, there were only eight system errors."
Was this coach-speak for eight missed tackles? "Not at all," he replied. "You don't have to miss a tackle for there to be a system fault. I'm talking about situations where we might have been exposed if the opposition had been a touch cuter, a little smarter. That happened only eight times, which was very satisfying in a game of such importance."
Dallaglio, meanwhile, was at his bullish best. "South Africa deserve our respect, and it's important that we learn the lessons of our defeat earlier in the tournament, but while I do raise an eyebrow at the position in which we find ourselves, I also look at the quality of player we have in this squad. Most competitive Test matches are won in the last 20 minutes, and we have people who know how to react in a tight situation – when a game reaches the point where one team or the other must go on and win the thing. Last Saturday, the French attempted to defend a one-point lead and couldn't do it.
"I know it was said earlier in the tournament that we didn't have too many world-class players, but you don't get to a final like this without them.
"What went wrong at the start of the pool stage? Either the players didn't understand what was being asked of them, or we weren't implementing things correctly, or the things we were being asked to do weren't working.
"I'd say there were elements of all three. But we talked about it honestly, the players put forward ideas of what we wanted to do in terms of structuring our game and things were galvanised."
As the No 8 admitted, there is nothing too sophisticated about England's current approach. "We hang on to the ball and defend heroically," he said, by way of summary. "All that matters now is that we take the opportunity we've created for ourselves. We've had four games of knock-out rugby now, four weeks where we either win or we go home. It's a mental process as much as anything, and we've grown used to it."