The Sale fly half Danny Cipriani, now aged 27, has long been a ‘Marmite’ character – one of those people whom you either love or hate.
I first saw him play at international age group level (captaining the England Under 19 team) for England at the age of 18 in a Six Nations game at the Stoop.
At the time his reputation already preceded him – he was being hailed as ‘The Future’ as far as the full England team was concerned. From my vantage point in a corporate suite, snacking on a ‘curry and beer’ with a group of middle-aged gentlemen, he certainly came across as a cocky young bastard, albeit that I personally took two points off his rating in our discussion after the game for the fact he played in a scrum cap – not a look that endears me to someone playing rugby union other than amongst the forward pack.
There’s no doubt that Cipriani possesses a rare talent. In his first start as England’s fly half aged 21 (against Ireland at Twickenham Stadium on 15th March 2008), he starred in a 33-10 victory with a faultless display of inventive play and goal-kicking, which should have heralded the beginning of a long international career. However serious injury – a fractured dislocation of his right ankle two months later – and then what I’ll describe here as a head turned by the glamourous opportunities presented by a celebrity lifestyle took Cipriani off the rails. Some might call it a case of him pressing the self-destruct button.
Ironically, given England’s stodgy performances and eventually disciplinary implosion during his reign as head coach, it was Rugby World Cup winning-icon Martin Johnson who cast Danny Boy into the international wilderness because of his maverick tendencies. For a while Cipriani seemingly played up to the stereotype, appearing more often in the tabloids and celebrity columns because of his colourful love-life and misdemeanours than where he should have been – on the back pages.
It seemed he was going nowhere fast. Even his attempt to rebuild his rugby reputation by jetting off to Australia and playing for the Melbourne Reds in 2011/2012 was ill-fated, comprising as it did of some sporadic rugby magic on the pitch and (inevitably?) a slew of celebrity stories, misbehaviour and disciplinary scrapes off it.
Since his return to the Premiership with Sale Sharks in 2012, Cipriani had done a pretty good job of rehabilitating himself within English rugby and, just recently, with the England coaching staff. He’s fought his way into the England squad as the back-up 10 to 21 year old George Ford, effectively taking the spot that became available when Owen Farrell’s knee injury ruled him out for the entire Six Nations championship. In this capacity he came off the bench towards the end of the home game against Italy and scored a try within minutes, having initiated a back move some forty metres out and then following up astutely.
There’s a bit of a hoo-hah going on at the minute in the rugby media over the fact that Stuart Lancaster did not chance his arm by throwing Cipriani on towards the end of last weekend’s defeat in Dublin against Ireland.
Those who regard Cipriani as the Messiah are complaining that Stuart Lancaster should have brought him on – after all, at the time England were sliding to what looked like (and then turned out to be) an inevitable and deserved defeat and therefore arguably Lancaster had nothing to lose.
The rest of us (i.e. the non-Cipriani believers) are unconvinced by this line.
George Ford is also a great talent, potentially one day a world class one, who comes with with a complete range of natural skills including canny game management.
Cirpriani is a mercurial rugby player and man. On any given day, he has the potential to trot onto the field, change the course of a game and perform like a sporting god … or, alternatively, like a complete liability. There’s very rarely a middle way with him.
Cipriani supporters are behind him because they sense that a player of his flair and ability could just, when it comes to it, make the difference that wins England the 2015 Rugby World Cup this autumn. Then again, doubters like me feel that it’s just as likely, if selected, he is the kind of player that could equally lose England the Cup in ten minutes of madness.
It’s a difficult issue for someone like me who believes that Stuart Lancaster and his coaching regime are themselves a notch or two below world class. Their preparation and attention to detail is right up there but, from the outset, some of their selections and tactics have been – and remain – average to poor.
The bottom line is that George Ford is England’s best 10 at the moment, better all-round skilled in this key position than either Owen Farrell or Danny Cipriani and comes complete with an old head on his young shoulders. On this occasion I agree with Stuart Lancaster’s call – yes, Cipriani might have come on against Ireland and won us the game, but equally he might just have lost it by another 10 to 15 points as well.
In many respects, for England Danny Cipriani represents rugby union’s equivalent of Kevin Pietersen in cricket. A misunderstood genius who only needs (yet) another chance to show what he can do and take the national team to glory … or, despite his undoubted talents, a somewhat unreliable player who can blow hot and cold and is no longer – if he ever was – quite that good.
Personally – and I’ve mentioned this previously, having seen Cipriani give as many distinctly ordinary performances in the flesh as great ones – I’d rather bring in Exeter Chief’s Henry Slade to understudy Ford and Farrell. He’s a kid (well, 22 in a fortnight) but no less talented than Cipriani in my book.