How England got their mojo back
When we analyse the improvement of rugby teams, there are plenty of incontrovertible statistics to explain and underline performances - basics, like tries scored and scrums won; percentages, of possession and tackles made and missed; tallies, of errors, offloads and line-breaks.
Most of the time they come together to form an equation that clearly explains victories and defeats. Most of the time, but not always.
Team sports can't always be reduced to mathematics or columns on a spreadsheet. Whilst England's stats give every indication of the side's progression over the past 12 months (they have already scored almost as many points from their two games so far this year as they managed in all five Six Nations matches in 2010, and almost double the number of tries) there may be other, less easily quantified forces at work.
A year ago, a visit to England's training headquarters in Bagshot gave the impression of many things - hard work, determination, planning - but not always of enjoyment and fun.
The determination and work are still in evidence. So, for the first time in an age, is the fun part. And it seems to be having a significant effect on the team's on-pitch displays.
England lost to France in Paris last season
"All of us are genuinely enjoying playing for England at the moment," says scrum-half Danny Care. "There is a massive trust thing inside the team which means you don't want to let anyone down. There's a real one-for-all feeling."
The trigger, according to Nick Easter, was a deliberate switch in strategy implemented almost exactly a year ago.
"People had been turning up to Pennyhill Park (England's team hotel), training together, but you'd only ever talk about rugby, even over dinner," he says. "You'd never get to actually know somebody.
"You're never going to be best buddies with everybody, but when you don't really know your team-mates it does make a difference on the pitch. If you've got a strong bond, you subconsciously are going to go that extra mile."
How were those bonds formed? How did a disparate group of players, in a team that was struggling to produce either results or fluent rugby, begin to rediscover a camaraderie and zest for the game?
"The Australia tour last summer was very important," admits Easter. "We had three days when we arrived when we didn't touch a rugby ball. It was quite a young group, which helped, but more importantly we had a few socials.
"We visited a brewery while we were over there, we've done a few over here. That's not to say we're alcoholics or anything, but you do need to have a few beers with people, to break down barriers and discover things about each other, and have something else to talk about apart from, 'How was your boys' game last weekend?'"
Just as the England cricket team in Australia socialised over computer games played on a portable giant screen in James Anderson's hotel room, so their rugby counterparts do the same. A Mario Kart league is the favourite ("...which I lead, by the way," insists Easter), with Call of Duty a close second. Another of the key factors that has brought the squad together is, to put it mildly, a touch more unorthodox.
"Table-tennis," says full-back Ben Foden. "We play a game where you get three lives, R-E-D, and when they've gone everyone gets to smash the ball at you until you're covered in lots of red dots. When we were in Australia all the boys got into it."
Hold on, you might say. This is international rugby. It's not about smiles and laughter. How often did you see Martin Johnson beaming in his playing days?
"We needed to turn off from rugby every now and then," believes Foden. "You come into camp, and it can be rugby, rugby, rugby. You've got meetings at six o'clock, meetings with Mike Ford doing defence, meetings with Brian Smith doing attack, analysing... it can take over. We've learned to switch off and enjoy each other's company, have a laugh.
"We have become more together and united because of that. It now feels like you're taking the field with 15 or 22 mates.
"You have to trust the players around you that they're going to do their job. And once you've had a few beers with someone, understand someone, you're taking the field with guys you know and can trust. It frees up your mind to do your job and then do that little bit extra you need to do at international level.
"You do the huddle before the game and look into everyone's eyes, and you can see that everyone's now there for each other. They're willing to put their bodies on the line for their country and the white shirt, but also because they don't want to let anyone down in the group."
With burgeoning friendships has come a liberation on the pitch, the product too of a more relaxed approach from the management team.
It has been all smiles for England so far in this year's Championship
The England XV in Johnson's first season as manager too often seemed hamstrung by a fear of doing the wrong thing, players stifled by the presence of the World Cup-winning skipper rather than inspired. Changes in the interpretation of the law have certainly helped - after that dreadful period of kicking the ball away, players are now less likely to be penalised after carrying the ball into contact - but a stronger relationship also exists between coaching staff and players.
"Now you've got a lot more freedom to express yourself," says Care. "The coaches have given us the licence to back ourselves and go for it. They believe in us, and we believe that what we're doing in training is the right thing.
"Two big words we try to live by are 'confidence' and 'trust'. At (his club side) Quins we're all about playing quickly - quick taps, quick line-outs, getting the nine running with the ball - but when I first came into the England team a few years ago that wasn't really the way England played. Now, (attack coach) Brian Smith is very much about a running scrum-half, and it's a lot easier to go out there and express yourself. A couple of years ago we maybe weren't so used to doing that."
Easter, possibly the most relaxed man in the squad and certainly the most laconic, is one of the players whose form has responded the best.
"Management have been very transparent," he says. "They now trust the players to lead certain sessions, certainly later in the week when you're close to what you're going to do in the match. You can pick each other's brains, both players and coaching staff, whenever you want."
It is also a relatively new-look squad, high on youthful confidence and unburdened by previous defeats and disappointments. Neither are many of the new breed shy, retiring types.
"Foden and Ashton like to be the clowns of the group," says wing Mark Cueto, revitalised by the presence of his younger team-mates in the back three. "Their energy is unbelievable and it's contagious."
Foden does not disagree. "The introduction of big loud characters like Ashy and Haskell has made a real difference. They bring life to the party. Has is one of the loudest guys out there, and he's very easy to get on the hook too."
"The front rowers are another tight group," says Care. "The rest of us just leave them alone and let them talk to one another. But Haskell's normally lingering around all the groups, trying to tell jokes and getting told to get lost most of the time."
No-one is pretending that the new atmosphere has made the team impregnable. They have arguably their two hardest games of the championship still to come, the first of those against France this Saturday. Defeat to Marc Lievremont's men at Twickenham or to Ireland in Dublin, even if Scotland are beaten in between, would appear to bring the side's revival to a juddering halt.
Easter thinks otherwise. "You have to enjoy it, because you're not going to win every game. There will be lows as well as highs, and how you get on will define how you get through them, and so then the speed that you progress."
The banter, according to the older stager, is likely to continue regardless.
"Did Fodes tell you he was good at table-tennis? He's not - he's rubbish. And you want to know why Cuets is happier now? It's because there's other northerners in the team now. Before he had two south London boys in Delon (Armitage) and Paul Sackey with him, so no-one could understand his accent and he felt all ostracised.
"I'll tell you something else. One of the northerners, Ashy, is even paler than he is. He's the palest man to ever play rugby."
Laughter once again rings out over Bagshot. Happy endings might just follow.