Two down, three to go. The Six Nations reaches the halfway point this weekend and only one team can aim for the Grand Slam and Triple Crown. The championship is still to play for and Lions places are there to be won, but only England can take the lot. Which is not bad going for a team that was on trial only 12 months ago.
There was an awful lot to put right after a World Cup campaign that had gone horribly wrong on and off the paddock. England didn’t just need a new coach, they needed a headmaster… and in Stuart Lancaster that is just what they got. He took up his role as interim head coach in the guise of a PE teacher (exactly what he’d been), but one with a headmasterly outlook. ‘Danny Care, take a long, hard look at yourself and if you still want to be part of this school come and see me in the spring. Now get out of my sight.’ As Mr Lancaster dispatched young Care back to Harlequins house to address his drinking issues, the message was clear: if you let yourself down, you let the school down.
Mr Lancaster has a vision for his boys and the best way to bring clarity is for everyone to buy into that vision. In his world, elite status walks hand in hand with humility. No more trumped-up southern party animals heading off to the Algarve for warm-weather training, Leeds is as good a place as any and you can put all that talent to good use by going out into the community and spreading the word. No one would dare skip the chance to give a coaching clinic or skills session to local kids now.
Mr Lancaster knows what kind of boy he wants — his head boy, master Robshaw, is the epitome of this. Talent is nothing without hard work.
That unseemly rabble called France are the next hurdle for England on their Grand Slam odyssey. It’s a long drop from World Cup finalists to two out of two defeats in the Six Nations in 16 months, but that is what the French have managed. The richest, sexiest league on the planet does not guarantee a team of world-beaters; English football and Indian cricket are evidence of that. While France and the rest appear to unravel, England continue to build under the guidance of their visionary principal.
There is a sense of building about the England cricket team as well. Andy Flower is a coach in the Lancaster mould. Similar outlook, similar choice of head boy. Alastair Cook would never let himself or his school down. Flower has had to deal with unruly elements (Kevin Pietersen), but stamped his quiet authority on the situation by making it quite clear that he is only interested in players who are team men. Very public examinations lie ahead, but you can guarantee that every effort will have been made for our cricketers and rugby players to do their headmasters proud.
The American writer John Irving is a heavyweight literary figure (have you tried to lift one of his books?), but he is also a substantial cheese in the world of wrestling. And he is extremely cross about the IOC’s decision to ditch wrestling from the Olympics in favour of modern pentathlon. Wrestling goes back several millennia of Games, whereas the modern pentathlon is modern and composed of such popular sports as fencing, shooting and riding, as well as swimming and running. What’s particularly interesting though is that on the 15-member board of the IOC’s executive, whose vote was secret, sat one Juan Antonio Samaranch Jnr. Sound familiar? Yes, his dad is the former IOC president. How nice to see that a passion and aptitude for sports administration can run in the family like that. Oh, and Samaranch Jnr is also vice president of the International Modern Pentathlon Union.
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times.