MATT DAWSON has admitted England had hit a plateau just as the French appeared to be surging towards their peak.
But the England scrum-half dismissed talk that the older members of Clive Woodward's 30-man squad, who make up the experienced bulk of the side, were feeling their age in a World Cup at which they have been some distance short of the form they demonstrated in beating Australia and New Zea-land on their own soil six months ago.
So far England, in reaching their semi-final showdown against France next Sunday, have struggled against South Africa, Samoa and Wales last weekend, where only the boot of Jonny Wilkinson reversed a try-count of 3-1 in favour of the Welsh.
Dawson, at 31, is a member of the thirty-somethings club which includes captain Martin Johnson, Lawrence Dallaglio and Neil Back.
"Win, lose or draw comments will be made about how good we are, how old we are, how young we are, whatever," said Dawson.
"As far as I'm concerned it's not an issue. If you are good enough you are either young enough or old enough, it doesn't matter to me.
"No, I don't think our style of play has deteriorated. If anything we've plateaued a bit and not improved as we wanted to.
"I thought Wales were outstanding and had done their homework and found a way to attack our strength in defence.
"But for 25 minutes against Wales we played some of our best all-round rugby in terms of field position and clinical moves. We lost on the try count 3-1 but a win is a win. Not for a moment, even at 10-3 down, did I think we would lose the game.
"We had a very good half-time and the coaches were outstanding in their calmness. If anything it made me more determined. Thoughts of '99 (when Wales beat England at Wembley) flashed through my mind. I thought I'd been there before and let the moment slip by. I was determined person-ally to influence it."
Dawson spent a day of relaxation, along with team-mates such as Will Greenwood, Iain Balshaw, Neil Back and Trevor Woodman, taking in some rays amid the beach culture of their Manly headquarters yesterday.
Second-row Ben Kay even demonstrated his prowess on the surf board, though England will hope they do not experience as many spills against France on Sunday.
"If we play like we did in the first-half against Wales then France would punish us by more than two tries and the game would be over," said Dawson. "The French are playing fantastic rugby and they are getting the bounce of the ball.
"But England want to win. Yes, we've had hard games against South Africa, Samoa and Wales but we've won."
It is the "winning is everything" philosophy which Woodward has drummed into his side.
To beat a brilliant French team, however, England need Wilkinson, the man who controls the heartbeat of their side, to come somewhere close to his best form.
By common consent Wilkinson is nowhere near that, though Dawson unsurprisingly tried to talk up what the fly-half contributes when his play-making skills are missing.
"When you're labelled the best player in the world you get more attention than anyone else," said Dawson. "He's had a lot of pressure off the pitch and even more on it and he's dealt with it pretty well.
"By his own admission he's not playing as well as he has done but it's symptomatic of the way we've been playing. We've had glimpses of brilliance from Jonny, though he was not in the number 10 position as much as we would have liked against Wales.
"But his work-rate was exceptional in different areas.
"If there is a ruck he goes in and wins the ball, but against Wales we were well blitzed and it was all hands on deck."
One vital member of that crew was Mike Catt, whose half-time introduction in place of Dan Luger turned the match England's way.
"Catty brought that second option as a number 10," explained Dawson. "If Jonny is doing other things and you have got another natural number 10 there it makes a huge difference. He grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, made some telling breaks which changed the game. It was an awesome substitution."
It might even be enough to get him a starting spot against France when England announce their team in the early hours of tomorrow morning British time.