There is a lot of hype around recalling Danny Cipriani for England
Danny Cipriani carries a hefty amount of baggage with him – he’s freely admitted that. The prodigious yet prodigal son of English rugby has been a tabloid editor’s dream. Nightclub incidents, celebrity girlfriends and a certain bus collision in Leeds just about cancelled out the positive column inches he earned as a supremely talented teenager.
Remember Cipriani’s staggering first Test start against Ireland? That was six years ago. Ancient history.
Thankfully for the now-26-year-old, a stint at Sale Sharks has opened a happier chapter. This campaign in particular is hauling him back into credit. Publicly vilified by Steve Diamond last season for an apparent reluctance to help out in defence, Cipriani now feels like the spearhead of Sale’s surge into play-off contention.
Without losing any of his enterprising attacking touches a player cannot easily learn, he has added composure and willing in the tackle area. Take Friday for example, and an encounter with golden boy George Ford on a rain-soaked evening at The Rec – where Bath had been beaten just once this term.
There were no individual flashes of brilliance, but after a poorly-struck first clearance that handed Nick Abendanon too much space, Cipriani exhibited calm game management on the back foot that helped the visitors to a 12-11 win. Four from four from the tee took the headlines, but his ability to pick runners in the scant time Sale had possession – standing flat and propelling Johnny Loeta and Sam Tuitupou over the gainline – did make you wonder about his England prospects. He is the type of ‘heads-up’ fly-half that could help Manu Tuilagi wreak havoc.
Besides, an understated Cipriani showing in a successful result is very welcome. Sometimes less is more, and Stuart Lancaster would have been more impressed with this role in a gritty win than a Hollywood hat-trick in a high-scoring defeat. That said, international involvement might yet be a way off.
At the end of last week, Diamond pressed his case for Cipriani to have a place on the June tour to New Zealand.
“Danny has matured,” said Sale’s boss. “He has become a real team man, bought in to that ethos, and added his own individual flourishes. The celebrity stuff has died down here in Manchester. He has managed to compartmentalise things in a much better way. His defence has gotten better, as it needed to.”
That all sounded perfect. Then Diamond hinted at a hasty ultimatum. “Taking him to New Zealand will either lift the lid on any World Cup hopes or be the final nail in that coffin.”
Why hinge Cipriani’s Test future on a trip to face the world’s best? It seems grossly unfair.
First off, there is the question of scheduling. The regular Premiership fixture card finishes on May 10. England’s initial party – minus players from the sides that have made the domestic final – fly out to prepare for the first Test in New Zealand ten days later. The rigid IRB window has created a farcical situation that will make preparation disjointed. Therefore, it’s likely Lancaster will stick to what he knows.
England’s successful Six Nations was not an overnight sensation. It was a steady progression. Each member of squad learned more about their individual place in the team structure and culture with every training session. Previous misdemeanours aside, Cipriani did not deserve his place in either the Senior or Saxons EPS in August. Stephen Myler and Freddie Burns had gone well in Argentina. Henry Slade was key to England Under 20’s Junior World Championship win, too.
All three have been working regularly under Lancaster, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt throughout this season. Despite mixed club form, each would rightly feel aggrieved to see Cipriani head Down Under instead of them as back-up to Owen Farrell and Ford, especially with a match against Canterbury Crusaders acting as an enticing shop window.
Besides anything else, it would be asking an obscene amount of Cipriani. Even such a confident, mercurial man would struggle to come in from the cold, learn established structures and guide a gameplan to overturn the All Blacks and their intimidating 14-Test winning run. That’s not being formulaic or unimaginative. It’s just common sense.
Far better would be to wait until July and make a judgment call on whether Cipriani’s qualities merit a place in either EPS. Lancaster might discover in New Zealand that a genuine running threat from fly-half will elevate England to another level. In which case, he would surely not hesitate to bring in the Sale playmaker.
Farrell and Ford are the long-term bets. But even if the wonderful prospect of a home World Cup proves beyond Cipriani, he should not give up. In 2019, he will be 31 – the age Jonny Wilkinson started plundering silverware with Toulon. Sam Burgess will be 30, and might end up a key lieutenant for Lancaster and one of the most destructive back-row bludgeons union has seen…it’s possible, isn’t it?
In any case, this summer is not do-or-die for Cipriani as an England player. Patience and perseverance are just as important as his undoubted talent in winning a white shirt back.
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