James Lawton: England draw strength from weak displays as they enter the battle zone

As Martin Johnson and his team came into the bright dawn for an early training session, they didn't seem to notice that the nation which has been baiting them for several weeks now had its mind exclusively on a horse race more than a thousand miles away.

England's body language spoke, gruffly, of something which in big-time sport is often referred to as the zone. The battle zone.

Stubble-chinned, hard-eyed, they marched without a hint of a sideways glance past even the most exotic of the ladies who gathered at the team's hotel in some pretty expensive-looking finery for a day-long celebration of the Melbourne Cup.

Certainly the head coach, Clive Woodward, was clear in his mind that he was unburdened by the chore of an old football manager who had the fatalistic habit of counting not players but committed "hearts" as they stepped on to the team bus.

"The big games are coming," the bronzed Woodward said, "and I just love it. I love the feeling of the team right now. They're homing in on what they have to do, and for a coach that's the best thing in the world. It's that feeling that we've worked hard, bloody hard, and now it's all on the line.

"We've had quite a bit of soul-searching since that tough game with Samoa, but you know I wouldn't have it any differently.

"We haven't been playing well, but we've been winning and I keep pointing out this isn't a diving contest; you don't get marks for style. You get the points for not forgetting how to win. We didn't forget against South Africa, who have now proved how much improved they are - and in the end we didn't forget against the Samoans.

"There are huge expectations on this team but I like this too. I know the players can handle it. They know it is right that much is expected of them. I believe in them, I think the English people are right to believe in them and most important of all, I think the players believe in themselves."

Later, as Australia began the massive task of clearing up the empties after the mare Makybe Diva made good the 700,000 Australian-dollar punt of her owner, a tuna fisherman who had tried to put on a million, Will Greenwood passionately endorsed the belief that England have become stronger.

The hammer of the Welsh, Greenwood says that the uprising of the team he has so often persecuted has brought a new edge to England's conviction about themselves in the build-up to Sunday's quarter-final here.

"I've had great success against Wales, I got my first victory in an England shirt against them, my first try, my first hat-trick," the centre said. "I saw them against New Zealand at the weekend and they were just fantastic. Going against them so close to a World Cup final gives me an incredible feeling of anticipation. There is nowhere in the world I'd rather be."

Greenwood insists England are in the throes of a classic process that conditions the thinking of an ultimately winning team. "Quite a lot of countries go through great periods of form - and then the flak comes. I think the Australians are the prime examples at the moment. You read what's going on around them in the newspapers, but we've had the same situation, when you set high standards and do not meet them in each and every game. People have opinions and make comments about how you are playing.

"But as far as the players are concerned, we have not in any way moved one iota from our ultimate goal and that's the back end of November and a final. But to get there we have to focus on the individual game coming up and at the moment the video recorder is working and the player analysis is working and we're doing all our preparation for Sunday's game against Wales.

"As far as morale is concerned there is no difference. This squad has been through a lot in the last two or three years. We've seen some good times and some bad times and we're very focused individuals. We're just excited about training tomorrow, never mind the match at the weekend."

Beside Greenwood, the veteran flanker Neil Back, now restored to full working order, sets his rugged features in an expression of intense reflection. Then he says: "Taking the flak can be frustrating, obviously. You train hard and try as well as you can to put it into the performance on the field but sometimes it just doesn't quite come off. But that just gives you stronger resolve next time you go out. I think all championship-winning teams have their off-days and hopefully they are not too many.

"What is important, and the sign of a good side, is when you have an off-day, don't quite click, and you still win. We've seen a number of these games in this tournament already. Sides have not clicked but won their games, and that's what counts at this stage of the competition. In previous World Cups the teams who have gone on to win it have had some poor performances. They haven't been brilliant week in, week out, but they have won their games - and won the one that matters. That's what we can do ... If we win the next three we're in heaven."

If it should happen, Australia, particularly, will be in hell. The fact was that even the dawn of the Melbourne Cup, a superbly tribal affair which for the natives brought the exquisite bonus of Frankie Dettori finishing dead last on the foreign favourite Mamool, didn't entirely suspend the Pommy-bashing. One commentator could imagine only one serious rival to the Cup race as sure-fire entertainment. It would be to have the hard-hitting Georgian "front five" chasing Clive Woodward's "clacker".

For the moment at least, be reassured. Woodward's clacker is in the clear. Indeed, like Back, he believes it is well past half-way to heaven.

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