- 10 Oct 07, 06:40 PM
Paris – Make a note of the date. It has been quite a momentous day for those of a Red Rose persuasion.
For the first time in almost two years, an England head coach has been able to keep the same starting XV for successive games.
It is an incredible statistic and highlights how injuries and muddled thinking have disrupted the reigning World Cup champions over the last few years.
For the present coach Brian Ashton, injuries have been his main headache since taking over last December.
There is no doubting the former Bath and Ireland coach has had rotten luck and this World Cup has been no different. Jonny Wilkinson, Olly Barkley, Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell and Jamie Noon have all been ruled out at some stage because of injury.
And last weekend, after naming his squad to play Australia, Ashton lost starting inside centre Farrell just two days before the game with possible replacement Barkley soon following him. It has been that kind of tournament.
So you can understand his delight at being able to stick with not just the same team, but the same 22 for Saturday’s eagerly anticipated semi-final with France. Finally he is able to send out a settled side, and it is handy timing too considering what is at stake this weekend.
But mindful of what has happened so far this tournament, Ashton was not looking too far ahead. “So far this week we have not picked up any injuries, but it is only Wednesday,” he said.
Fit-again duo Farrell and Barkley have now gone from first and second-choice number 12s to third and fourth within seven days.
Ashton did insist though that the win over Australia did not mean his team selection was a foregone conclusion.
“It was not an automatic process at all,” insisted Ashton. “You have to be fair to all 30 players in the squad and talk it through. It was a very difficult decision to be honest. Either Mike or Andy start at 12 and neither would be a substitute because we need a second goal kicker on the bench.
“It another example of the rotten luck Andy has had since he has been with England.”
Ashton received plenty of criticism for his team selection last week but England’s display against the Wallabies did a lot to silence the doubters.
And it would have been a big call indeed if he decided to tinker with a pack that so aggressively and efficiently disposed of the Wallabies last week, even if some are calling for the recall of Wasps flanker Tom Rees.
“Is there a game on?” said Ashton as he strolled past the rows of camera crews and the crowd of waiting journalists to take his seat alongside skipper Phil Vickery and full-back Jason Robinson.
After Ashton had revealed his team, questioning soon moved onto the subject of Robinson, who will earn his 50th cap at the weekend. And so the laughs began.
“What has he given us over the last few years? Earache, annoyance,” said Vickery. “Like most people I used to watch Jason Robinson play for Wigan and Great Britain, I think I was about eight at the time.”
And it did not stop there. Robinson later got in on the joke when the 61-year-old Ashton was also asked about his full-back’s contribution to the England cause.
“I remember seeing him when he was about 16,” said the head coach before Robinson interrupted quick as flash: “Don’t tell me you were eight as well!”
Although this England side seem relaxed and confident as they attempt to reach their second straight World Cup final, there is an increased sense of focus and intensity.
And with Vickery in the dressing room, there is no way this England squad will be allowed to rest on their laurels following the win over Australia.
“The challenge for us as a pack of forwards is going to be considerably higher against France than last weekend,” said Vickery. “We know we are going to have to up our performance considerably if we are to compete with these guys."
And England fans will be hoping that this unchanged team can deliver the same result this weekend.
Mark Orlovac is a BBC Sport journalist based in London. He will be based in Paris for the knockout stages of the Rugby World Cup.