Danny Cipriani: Two years of quarantine while he waits for the call
England's most charismatic rugby player is heading Down Under to ply his trade, and taking his pooch with him, because he doesn't feel wanted by Johnno and Co. Hugh Godwin speaks to Danny Cipriani
Sunday 11 April 2010
It is not only Danny Cipriani who is off to Melbourne later this year. Rocky the dog has had his jabs, a month's quarantine in Australia has been booked and he is going with his master. "He's a nice little pug," Cipriani says. "I like him because he's low maintenance. Ten minutes' walk and he's happy."
Hardly anyone in Cipriani's short but spectacularly well-documented career has been heard describing him as low maintenance, and certainly never pug-ugly. Our photographer cooed from behind a short lens as she snapped Cipriani in the special jersey to be worn by his club Wasps in their inaugural St George's Day match against Bath at Twickenham on Saturday week. "It's the eyes," she said. "You can see why he and Kelly Brook are together."
Cipriani, on the face of it, is in a good mood. The pitches are firming up – a rite of spring greeted in the Premiership almost as a miracle every year – and last Sunday he was in his hard-running, head-up pomp, making a try for his mate and Wasps club-mate Dom Waldouck.
The various fracture injuries that interrupted this and each of the previous two seasons have abated. He has the move to Melbourne Rebels settled and he will head Down Under in October, which leaves scope for a long holiday and a good stint of strength and conditioning work before then. He gives a super-sweet smile when I recall him as a super-confident 18-year-old schoolboy, sitting by a cricket field, taking my call for a newspaper "rising star" piece and talking about a future playing for England as if it was night following day. Four years on, only that subject spoils the view.
"I used to dream of playing at Twickenham and I did it at 11, 12, 14 and 15," says Cipriani. "This Wasps shirt has got the English flag on it, so it will be like playing for England." Well, as Cipriani might say in one of his favourite phrases, "kind of".
His accent is part suburban public school – his devoted mum, Anne, drove long hours as a London cabbie to pay for her son's education – and part urban street, referring often to the "vibe" of this or that. He keeps in touch with his dad Jay by visiting him and his extended West Indian family in Trinidad & Tobago.
The future is even further away: the Super 15 season with his new team, kicking off early next year. "I've not been to Melbourne," says Cipriani, "but all I've heard is how lovely it is. Europeanised with all the restaurants, the coffee culture, and on the way home from work there are barbecues everywhere. It sounds amazing."
But this is a career choice, not a rush of blood to the head in the travel agents. When the Rebels came yelling, they got the timing right. Cipriani was not in the England squad named in January, just as he had not been in it since playing at fly-half in Martin Johnson's first three matches as manager in November 2008, soon after recovering from a broken ankle. Moreover, he had lost faith that Johnson was about to pick him again any time soon, despite his continuing selection for the second-team Saxons, which would suggest to most 22-year-olds they had a fighting chance.
England's coaches have let it be known they have a problem with his attitude. Is he terminal trouble or just a little temperamental? On Wasps' list of club fines, Cipriani tends to be near the top for stuff like missing a pre-match walk-through or not mopping the weights-room floor. Yet logic says he would not have survived seven years at this club without the overall dedication of a serious sportsman.
It was the end of last season which set the mould. "For the last 10 games I was going well," Cipriani recalls. "I was the only England fly-half considered for a Lions spot. I thought I'd be chosen for England's two games with Argentina. Instead they sent me to the [Saxons'] Churchill Cup. They said the game time would be good for me. I could have had the metal plate in my ankle taken out and not gone. But I did go and I was a positive influence." In the meantime, with Wilkinson and Toby Flood injured, Andy Goode was the England fly-half against Argentina; the back-ups were Sam Vesty and Tom May. Yes, quite. Who?
Almost from the start with Cipriani, there was a drip-drip feed of non-rugby headlines. The gossip columnists embraced this new, young English sports star, not that they knew a kicking tee from a cup of tea. "The only thing I regret doing was a photo shoot with some girls draped over me," Cipriani says now, without irony. (It was a Sunday newspaper dressing him as James Bond on silk bedsheets, so not exactly Playgirl). "There's been a lot of fabrication. I had the chance to go to Milan for a fashion show, and I asked Ian McGeechan [the then coach at Wasps] 'do you think I should go?' and he said 'definitely'. It wasn't a problem. I got to have dinner with David Beckham. It was an amazing trip."
Of course it may simply be that Cipriani hasn't got it: the aptitude, that is, not the message. We love his daring flat passes and fleet of foot, honed in athletics track sessions with Margot Wells, but also recall the charged-down kicks as England's fly-half. Johnson's attack coach, Brian Smith, has him down as a full-back, if anything. Cipriani insists he is still available to tour with England this summer, and play in the autumn, and go to the 2011 World Cup – if they want him. The eight-month stints with the Rebels (with time off for Christmas) in 2011 and 2012 clash only with the Six Nations. Perhaps it has all been a calculated gamble, and "Johnno" and "Cips" will kiss and make up. Perhaps not. "It's to do with making you feel wanted," says Cipriani. "If it was up to me, I'd be giving players confidence, not knocking them down."
Cipriani discusses England's selections, which he thinks include a reluctance to trust in youth, with a mixture of sympathy and dissent. "I am sure Martin Johnson and his coaches would love to put out young talent," says Cipriani, "but they have to answer to their bosses and win matches and they pick players who they think will get results. When money comes into it, it creates a certain amount of expectation. Martin must have felt a certain amount of nervousness when he hasn't been in management before. He was coaching in the way he was brought up at Leicester and to be fair, they won a lot of things.
"Shane Geraghty was clearly the form fly-half in the autumn in the Premiership and probably Europe, and he played for England at 12. Steffon Armitage has been the outstanding No 7 in the league this season but it doesn't always fit the bill for what the coach wants or what they're trying to do. Ben Foden might have had 20 caps by now, instead he's got four. Look at Saracens; they played conservatively this season and got some results but lost a few too. Now they are playing brilliantly but the season is almost over. Some people vote Conservative, some vote Labour, every one makes their choice. I'm not saying I know it all. I am absolutely not saying I'm the best player. Martin might not think I fit his mould or his shirt, for what he wants, or how he wants to play."
Cipriani is just as animated on other aspects of rugby: about the three years the administrators have spent mucking around with the laws; about the punishing length of the English season; and how about a World League, split into regional conferences, for the club game? He also smiles when asked whether he watched Lionel Messi's four goals for Barcelona on Tuesday night – the 22-year-old Messi who happens, to date, to be performing better for club than country. "He's just fun-loving, he's happy, isn't he? He knows how good he is. And he's more of a team player now as well. His coach said to him that he just wanted to beat everyone with the ball. Now he's playing off everyone, he's just unbelievable to watch."
So Cipriani has Twickenham in front of a 50,000-plus crowd for the St George's fixture to look forward to; part of a run-in with Wasps which begins with today's European Challenge Cup quarter-final with Gloucester and offers the potential of two trophies and a return to HQ for the Premiership final. He aims to say a fond farewell to Wasps and have a storming first Super 15, playing opposite Dan Carter and the like, and alongside such luminary fellow backs as the former Wallaby captain Stirling Mortlock and the rugby league whiz Mark Gasnier. Then, who knows? "I'll be back when I'm 24," he says. "I could be back playing for England before then. I doubt it, but that thought will always be at the back of my mind, and part of my desire to play well."
We end with a word about Rocky – "The quarantine will be tough but I can visit him every day" – and, of course, Kelly. Will Ms Brook also be going to Melbourne? "As much as she can," Cipriani replies. "She'll support me, no matter what." We share a chuckle that Gareth Delve, the Wales No 8 who has also signed for the Rebels, probably hasn't been asked the same question. And with a note of realism which might just serve him better from now on than any miss-pass, sidestep or flashbulb, Cipriani says: "I know, I know, that's the way things are. It's fine."
Tickets for the St George's Day game on Saturday 24 April are on sale by calling 0844 225 2990 or at www.stgeorgesdaygame.co.uk. Tickets start at £10 with £1 per ticket going to Help for Heroes
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