- 18 Sep 07, 05:53 PM
Versailles - Out of despair and darkness, lucidity and light. Out of chaos and carnage, clarity and control.
Better late than never, you might say. But from where has this new brains trust emerged, this new well of optimism sprung?
Brian Ashton has two assistant coaches, two specialist coaches, a fitness guru and a technical support manager to bounce ideas off.
But the 61-year-old head coach, whose own nomadic career took him from Lancashire to France and Italy and back again, has decided the players themselves are the fount of most knowledge, and control is now firmly in their hands.
After a four-hour debrief with his fellow coaches last Saturday morning, Ashton met the players in the afternoon, to – as he put it – “clear all the debris away”.
”We just talked about what happened on Friday night and some other issues as well that I felt were pretty important to get out in the open,” he explained, without revealing what those 'other issues' were. They were private, unsurprisingly.
Those who made the most sense, it seems, and took a lead in deciding what needed to change before they face Samoa on Saturday, were two players who watched the game from the sidelines - Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley.
The pair of fly-halves, along with Mike Catt, Andy Farrell and scrum-halves Shaun Perry, Andy Gomarsall and Peter Richards, were then summoned to another meeting with Ashton on Sunday, nominally a day off for the whole squad, to discuss tactics.
“It was an incredibly useful exercise,” Ashton explained. “I have always been a big believer in players playing a full part in what goes on, especially in Test match rugby.
“There are players on that team-sheet that know more about areas of the game than I do. That is not me saying ‘I am not an international coach’. That is just reality.
“You have got to tap into things like that. I have done it before with them, but maybe I should have done more of it earlier.”
Crikey, a coach who admits his players know more than he does. Is that a first?
The injuries to first Wilkinson and then Barkley obviously hampered England’s preparations for the Boks game (and, you could argue, the failure to include Toby Flood in the original squad).
Mike Catt and Andy Farrell had just one training session to work out what they were supposed to be doing, and clearly it wasn’t enough.
They have both paid the price, along with Perry, and been omitted from the starting line-up for this weekend.
Wilkinson and Barkley have never played in a Test match together either, but from listening to England’s 2003 hero on Tuesday, you would never have known.
Two weeks ago Barkley was quick to praise the help he had received working with Wilkinson before the World Cup, talking about someone else who understood the “loneliness” of the place-kicker and the mental toll of practice.
And Wilkinson has recognised a kindred spirit in Barkley who, he says, is “very much on the same wavelength in terms of what we want to achieve out of the game” and “plays the game in his head very similarly”.
Both made their England debuts at a young age, (Wilkinson at 18, Barkley at 19), both are “used to shouting and talking our way through a game”, and both have a similar crouched, clasp-the-hands-together routine when they line up a kick at goal, left-footed.
One revealing anecdote from Wilkinson concerned players’ meetings, at which he admits he is often “very keen to get my point across”. But he said that having heard Barkley speak first, he had not felt the need to do so himself.
So this is not, as one might imagine, a master-and-pupil relationship, but a meeting of minds, a realisation that in the sticky situation England find themselves in, two decision-making brains are better than one, or none at all.
The other good news for England fans is that, according to Jonny, “form has nothing to do with anything in rugby.”
“If everyone creates an environment in which you are allowed to bring out your strengths, then everybody will be on form,” he explained, with a certain logic.
So next time a coach says a player has been selected on the basis of form, or because he is off it, we can tell him he doesn’t know what he’s on about.
The players know best, and Jonny knows more than most.
Welcome back Wilko. Your country needs you.
Bryn Palmer is the BBC Sport website’s rugby union editor.