Call it the calm before the storm. While France and New Zealand spent yesterday fire-fighting their way through the aftershock of World Cup failure - Fabien Galthié, the French captain, announced his immediate retirement after withdrawing from Thursday's play-off match for third place; John Mitchell, the All Blacks coach, ran into some serious flak as high-profile commentators demanded his shaven head on a silver-ferned platter - Clive Woodward and England were the very picture of serenity as they began preparations for this weekend's final against the hosts and holders, Australia.
"This is sport, where no one is guaranteed to win anything," Woodward shrugged when asked whether he fully appreciated the scale of his side's potential achievement. "The only time I'd get upset is if I felt I hadn't done my job properly, and that won't happen this week. We will do everything possible to win this game of rugby. If we win, it will be because we deserved to win; if we lose, it will be because the Wallabies played better than us. I've always said it would take a very good team to beat England, and we'll all be bitterly disappointed if we don't make it through on Saturday. But the day will come and go, the World Cup will come and go. Whatever happens, we'll be able to shake hands, go home and look forward to Christmas."
In a stark departure from the norm, Woodward and his opposite number, the razor-sharp Eddie Jones, gave the personality politics side of rugby a wide berth. Indeed, they could hardly have been more conciliatory. Woodward described the Wallabies' first-half performance against the All Blacks three days ago as "the best 40 minutes of the World Cup, in a technical sense". Jones talked glowingly of England's discipline throughout their semi-final victory over France and said that the presence of Jonny Wilkinson in a white shirt effectively left Australia vulnerable anywhere within 55 metres of their own line.
But the mutual appreciation act is unlikely to continue for more than another 24 hours or so, for there is precious little trust between the two men. Fully conscious of the way the British and Irish Lions had their line-out codes cracked by the Wallabies in the 2001 series here, Woodward is already ratcheting up his security operation. England have gadgets and gizmos galore, to borrow a line from an old Walt Disney soundtrack - they even have a machine that alerts them to the presence of electronic bugs in dressing-rooms or team meeting areas. This week of all weeks, he will be watching Jones like a hawk.
"We could lose the World Cup by not paying attention to these things," insisted Woodward. "It's a serious matter, and it's common sense for us to address it. When there is a lot at stake, you have to be smarter than the average bear. I don't think the Australians would do anything untoward - if they got caught, it would be too big a story - but it's important for us to be absolutely professional in this field. And we are."
Woodward will name his side tomorrow, with 13 of the starting line-up pretty much picking themselves. The principal area of debate surrounds the two centre positions, where the coaching staff must decide whether to stick with Mike Catt and Will Greenwood, or restore the aggressive Mike Tindall to the mix. Catt's promotion following the quarter-final victory over Wales was essential, not least in lending reassurance to a struggling Wilkinson, but it pushed Greenwood out of his most effective position of inside centre. The Harlequin is not the heaviest of tacklers, and Woodward may be tempted to choose between his two inside specialists and run Tindall outside against the powerful Stirling Mortlock.
Australia will certainly make a change. Ben Darwin, their tight-head prop, suffered a prolapsed disc in his neck at a scrum in the second half of Saturday's semi-final and is still being treated in hospital. Darwin will be replaced by the inexperienced New South Wales front-rower Al Baxter. England will not be slow to identify this as an area of potential Wallaby weakness.
There may also be an issue surrounding the Australians' second-row combination. Nathan Sharpe, quite magnificent in performing the ball-carrying chores against the All Blacks, was hit hard and illegally by Jerry Collins during the first half of the game and when he eventually left the field, he looked decidedly concussed. As per usual in these circumstances, the Wallaby management steered well clear of any comment on Sharpe's head injury, preferring to talk about his "leg problems". But David Giffin, their most experienced lock, is on standby to replace the strapping Queenslander.
The final will be refereed by Andre Watson, of South Africa, who also controlled the 1999 showpiece between Australia and France in Cardiff and therefore becomes the first official to be awarded two such matches. He will be joined by a pair of touch judges from New Zealand, Paddy O'Brien and Paul Honiss; another Springbok referee, Jonathan Kaplan, will make the video calls.
Watson has had a low-profile competition to date, but he is generally regarded as one of the three or four outstanding referees in the sport and his two pool games - the Australia-Ireland fixture in Adelaide and the New Zealand-Wales match in Melbourne - were among the most compelling of the tournament. He has controlled six England internationals since the Woodward regime began in 1997 and has been pretty even-handed. England lost three of those games, won two and drew the other.
Worryingly, one of those defeats was of record proportions - 76-0 against the Wallabies in Brisbane during the 1998 "tour of hell". There again, Watson cracked down hard on blatant Australian time-wasting in the 2000 Test at Twickenham, when Dan Luger's injury-time try gave the home side a 22-19 victory.
Chris White, the professional referee from Cheltenham who took charge of the Australia-New Zealand semi-final, has been awarded Thursday's third place play-off fixture.Reuse content