- 17 Sep 07, 05:52 PM
Versailles - For a while on Monday afternoon, it was possible to believe England were still world champions in more than just name.
Anyone passing the Stade Montbauron, the team’s training base in a quiet corner of Versailles, might have thought an international boy band was in town, such was the high-pitched squealing frenzy awaiting the squad from 2,000 local schoolchildren.
Several hundred curious adults also looked on from the ground’s only stand as the England boys strutted their stuff in a public training session.
Some of the chidren were even draped in England flags, although when I asked some of them which players they were looking forward to seeing, “Wilk-een-son” and “Rob-een-son” were the only names proferred.
For half an hour it appeared they might be disappointed, for there was no sign of Jonny, or Olly Barkley, while Robinson, hamstring still intact, was only able to walk up and down with physio Phil Pask, before later breaking into a gentle jog.
No-one seemed to quite know what was going on, players and coaches alike, as they stood around, threw a few balls around, and did a bit of stretching.
But eventually Wilkinson and Barkley, accompanied by Nick Easter – had he decided to get some kicking practice in too? or had they all missed the bus? – joined the happy throng, and the squad ran through a few basic moves.
When they first emerged from the changing rooms, the local co-ordinator had invited the crowd, via his microphone, to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mike Catt, who turned 36 on Monday.
Catt looked a little bemused at the ensuing rendition, which seemed to include a fair few whistles and jeers as well as singing, unless my ears were deceiving me.
But then in the space of 24 hours anyone could be forgiven for wondering whether those inside the camp are, as assistant coach Mike Ford said on Sunday, “on the same hymn sheet” anyway in terms of how they recover from Friday’s debacle against South Africa and beat Samoa on Saturday.
Ford, for those who missed developments, proceeded to say he didn’t think England possessed the sort of world-class players the Springboks had, and that Andy Farrell is probably a bit long in the tooth to make a successful transition to rugby union now.
Neither observation would be hotly disputed by anyone who has witness England’s performances of late, but it was a surprise nevertheless to hear a coach being so candid about the raw materials he had to work with.
Equally unsurprising was that head coach Brian Ashton and specialist coach Graham Rowntree were not minded to share Ford’s view in public on Monday when asked their own thoughts on whether the current side is up to the task in front of them.
“I don’t accept we haven’t got the players,” Ashton said. “I think we have. In our last three matches we have performed nowhere near the level, or potential level, of the ability of the players we have got. We have to make sure we get the right performance on Saturday [against Samoa] and get all the players playing to their full potential.”
One player Ashton has got is Farrell, who he defended against the latest bout of headlines to come the rugby league convert’s way on the back of Ford's comments.
Had the gamble of bringing Farrell to union backfired? Ashton was asked. “I don’t think it has all,” he replied, before going on to say he thought it “grossly unfair” to single out one player after the collective failings against South Africa.
“If the 14 others around him were playing absolutely phenomenal rugby and he wasn’t, then we might have a case for talking about it,” Ashton said. “But the guys around him are not playing any better or worse than he is.”
A fair point. I gave Farrell five out of 10 in my player ratings on Friday, but only four players got anything more, and plenty of you accused me of being generous.
Rowntree, too, buoyed by England’s “better than average” set-piece showing against the Boks, was insistent in his belief that “we have got the players and I don’t think we are too far off the pace, in terms of the forward battle”.
“Collectively,” he added, “we all need to know what we are doing a bit more, but that comes from confidence. I don’t think this side is far away from breaking their duck and getting that confidence, believe me.”
So be reassured, England fans, all is not lost. The squad are “in a bad place at the moment” Rowntree acknowledged, but “we will fight our way out of it”.
Excellent. Saturday night’s alright for fighting, after all.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.