- 19 Oct 07, 05:32 PM
Paris - For a man supposedly not comfortable with the media spotlight, England coach Brian Ashton played a blinder on Friday.
In Friday's final news conference before England play South Africa in Saturday’s World Cup final, Ashton did not look like a man just 80 minutes of rugby away from writing his name in the history books.
He was calm, funny and relaxed, and dare I say it, could he have even been playing a few mind games ahead of the clash at the Stade de France?
His grenade came almost at the very start of the news conference when he was asked: “Have you radically changed things with the opposition in mind?”
“There are one or two changes which I’ll keep to myself,” he said.
So what tricks has he got up his sleeve?
Maybe he feels that he does have to change things in order to beat the Springboks - after all, England have been thumped the last three times they have played Jake White’s men.
Indeed, Ashton knows the size of the task ahead. “You can’t just single out one player, they have got world-class players all over their team," he said.
The likes of Fourie Du Preez, Bryan Habana, Victor Matfield, Schalk Burger and Francois Steyn are all crucial players that can turn a game and maybe Ashton has a special plan to try to keep these boys quiet.
We know how a late change of tactics served England so badly before the 1991 World Cup final against Australia, so could this just be Ashton trying to plant a seed of doubt in South African minds?
England have changed a lot since that 36-0 thumping by South Africa on 14 September.
Not only have they turned their game around with wins over Australia and France in the knockout stages, but the team line-up has settled down a bit too.
Scrum-half Andy Gomarsall only came on at half-time against the Sprinboks but has been in superb form since, while we all know the effect Jonny Wilkinson has made after his return to the side.
And with Mike Catt now locked in at inside centre rather than fly-half, England’s decision-making axis looks far better balanced than the one that took to the field that night.
Over the last few weeks, the aggression from England’s forwards has served them well, while Wilkinson has been there to slot over the penalties and drop-goals.
It may not be beautiful but it’s effective and, against all the odds, England have made it to the final when quite a few supposedly more attractive teams are at home with their feet up.
Ashton, though, was giving no clue as to what he is up to, saying: "You’ll see tomorrow evening, hopefully."
The news conference itself was a packed affair, as you would expect.
With banks of television and photographers’ cameras trained on him, a chipper Ashton took his place in between brooding front-rowers Phil Vickery and Mark Regan. “A rose between two thorns," said Ashton.
Questions soon turned to the messages of support England were getting from back home and Ashton grabbed the attention of the room when he mentioned that Daniel Craig, the current James Bond, had been in touch.
“He sent a message before the semi-final and I have spoken to him again this week,” said Ashton. “He has promised to ring again on Sunday.”
One of the assembled hacks enquired: “Has he given you a licence to kill?”
Cue groans from the rest of the journalists but that soon turned to laughter as Ashton got up and pretended to walk out.
Last week, Ashton had replied, “No, he’s Scottish isn’t he?” when asked if Prime Minister Gordon Brown had sent him a message ahead of the France game.
This week, things had moved on.
“After my comment in the news conference a week last Wednesday I got a fax from the Prime Minister,” said Ashton. “We had another one yesterday, we are on first-name terms now.”
As for the serious stuff, both Vickery and Regan did not seem as if the nerves were getting to them as they talked about the challenge that lies ahead.
“We are under no illusions as to how big a task tomorrow night is going to be,” said skipper Vickery. “South Africa are a quality side and they have proven that.”
And it seemed appropriate that the news conference ended with this rallying cry from the captain: “We have achieved a lot of things to get here, and a lot of people didn’t expect us to get this far.
“We thoroughly deserve our chance to be here but being here is not good enough. We want to go out and retain our trophy.”
Deep breath everyone, we are almost there.
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.