They sat there like two grumpy old men who had misread the script. Instead of moaning and groaning about the world and their place in it, Jason Robinson and Martin Corry – England rugby players of a certain age who do not have much time left to them on the international stage – spent a thoroughly entertaining half-hour yesterday discussing life's glorious unpredictabilities.
"Over the last seven weeks, we've changed our perception of ourselves," said Corry, the back-row forward from Leicester, as he reflected on the small matter of the team's defence of the Webb Ellis Cup against South Africa tomorrow night. "This has been a great experience, a great ride. Now, we want to finish the journey in the right way."
Of course, there was a beef or two – certainly, neither man relished the kick-off time of 9pm French time. "Too late," said Robinson, who has already retired from club rugby and will call it a day after the final. "I grew used to playing on Friday nights with Sale, but I'd spend the morning doing normal things – paying the bills, doing stuff around the house – before shifting into rugby mode. What was more, I could go for breakfast without signing autographs on the stairs. What can you do in a hotel in Paris for hours on end?" Corry concurred. "If I had my way, every game would start at noon. I'd get up, have something to eat, jump on the team bus and crack on with it."
But for the most part, their sense of excitement – their insistence that the unlikely and the impossible are two very different things – made them seem younger then their years. (Corry is 34, Robinson 33. "Old men getting older, but still here," as the latter put it). "This is such a huge occasion ahead of us, but even if there were only 10 people watching, I would play this game because I love it," said Robinson, who was on the field when England won the trophy in Australia four years ago. "To be involved in this means everything to me," said Corry, who wasn't.
Both men have captained England, through good times and bad. When a television type set proceedings in motion by reminding Corry of the bad moments and asked whether the red-rose revival was entirely down to Jonny Wilkinson, the big flanker with the beaten-up face gave him a glare the Medusa herself might have admired. "Thanks for that – a nice positive start," he said. Robinson simply rolled his eyes. The two of them yield to nobody in their admiration for the outside-half from Newcastle, but this one-man team nonsense really gets their goat.
Generally acknowledged as the most successful league-to-union convert of them all, the full-back will win his 51st cap tomorrow. Last week, when he took the field alone before the semi-final with France, he was given a standing ovation by the overwhelming majority of the 80,000 spectators in the stadium. Could he explain this outpouring? "I'm a likeable guy," replied Robinson, cheekily but with complete justification. He has in many ways been a model professional sportsman, dedicated to his conditioning work, alive to his responsibilities and so profoundly unaffected by his celebrity that he keeps his many medals "somewhere in the house, in a bag".
One of those medals was famously won in Sydney four years ago. He received another, of the runners-up variety, in 1995, after England lost to Australia in the final of the Rugby League World Cup. "Winning a world title is the best feeling you can have in rugby," he said. "Losing one can be the worst thing in your career. I know what it's like to win, and I know what it's like to lose. I'd love to come out 2-1 on the right side by beating the Springboks.
"But while it's plain there has been a big turnaround in our fortunes in this tournament, this is some challenge. I'd be lying if I told you I hadn't thought about this being my last game, and there have been mixed emotions through the week. Those emotions have to be controlled, at least until after the match. We're here for one last push and we want to get the job done. I've been proud to play for my country – as a boy, it was all I ever wanted to do – and I don't want it to end in defeat."
Corry is not retiring immediately – or if he is, he has not let on. However, a new generation of English loose forwards are surging through, from Tom Croft and Jordan Crane at his own Leicester club to the likes of James Haskell at Wasps. All things considered, he is unlikely to represent England in next year's Six Nations Championship, at least in his current position. If he too reaches the end of something tomorrow night, he will have given every bit as much as Robinson to the cause.
"South Africa pose so many threats," he said. "Their style has always been direct, but in the last 18 months they've developed a wider attacking game.They seem pretty complete to me. There again, we've made great strides of our own, in the space of a few weeks rather than 18 months, and we're focusing on ourselves now. Since winning in 2003, we haven't done justice to our title. Now we've created this opportunity, it's up to us to take it."
One man who will definitely join Robinson on the outside of the international game is Tony Spreadbury, the ebullient West Countryman who has refereed his last Test after a 17-year stint on the panel. Perhaps the most unashamedly effusive official ever to take up the whistle – many players have wondered if he might stop talking for long enough to start a match – he had the honour of controlling the opening game of this tournament and handled a difficult occasion with his customary good humour. Happily, he will continue to referee at Premiership level.