Brian Ashton does not see him as a bright young thing – "You can't use a phrase like that to describe a rugby player," the England coach said yesterday – but there is no doubt that Danny Cipriani, the 20-year-old Wasps outside-half who will make his first international start as a full-back in this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Murrayfield, brings something fresh to the red rose mix. A note of caution, though. Something similar used to be said of Iain Balshaw, and look what happened to him.
Ashton has dropped Balshaw, his protégé and a favourite player, after deciding that the Gloucester full-back's defensive contribution to the victory over France 11 days ago was less than persuasive. It was difficult not to agree: at one point during the first half, Balshaw missed a high ball by something close to the width of the pitch. Even so, it was a painful moment for the coach. He would much have preferred not to have made the decision.
"We're looking for a little bit more solidity than we had in France," he said. "There is an area of Iain's game, which has to do with control at the back, that requires some work. He knows it. But I would also say that he has not played anywhere nearly as badly as some so-called experts seem to think. I don't read what's written, but I get to hear about it, and I think the criticism has been overdone. Iain and I have spoken about the issues to be addressed but, in fairness, we haven't found a way of getting the best out of him, either."
The coach has also dropped the veteran Bristol hooker Mark Regan – not to the bench, like Balshaw, but completely. Lee Mears of Bath will start, with George Chuter of Leicester on replacement duty. In addition, one of Chuter's colleagues at Welford Road, the flanker Tom Croft, will continue in the back row for the stricken James Haskell, whose ankle gave out after 20 minutes in Paris.
"I don't see Mark as a bench player – he's a starting hooker in my book," Ashton said. "He thinks he's pretty well qualified for the bench, having sat there 30-odd times, but I see it differently and I don't think he's rediscovered the form he showed at the World Cup, when he was one of the outstanding performers and motivators." Asked about Regan's reaction, the coach replied: "He's not the happiest bloke around, but we had a frank discussion and he's in no mood to be written off." The same kind of frank discussion as Ashton had with Andy Gomarsall, axed as scrum-half before the trip to Paris? "No, no," came the icy response. "It was very mature."
On another day, Regan's demise would have been a major story – especially following events across the Channel, where the Tricolore coach, Marc Lièvremont, described the West Countryman as a "grotesque clown", who played "outside the spirit of the game". But on this occasion the attention was focused squarely on Cipriani, whose exuberant performances for Wasps this season have confirmed Ashton in his long-held suspicion that he has a player in a thousand on his hands.
"Danny is a very confident young man," the coach said. "It was always my intention to get him involved in this Six Nations Championship, although I had no preconceived idea about whether to play him at outside-half or full-back. He's at No 15 for this game because things have turned out this way. To be honest, the position is not the key thing when it comes to bringing in a young player. I'm much more interested in whether he's mentally ready for the challenge of international rugby. In my view, Danny is definitely ready."
Might there be one or two parallels between the man on the upward spiral and the man on the downward one? After all, Balshaw was once the talk of English rugby in the way Cipriani is the talk of it now. "Not really," Ashton said. "I just hope Danny doesn't go on a Lions tour at the end of the season." This was a reference to the 2001 trip to Australia, where Balshaw's confidence sank so low that the remnants had to be excavated by archaeologists.
England's coaching team believe the Scots will kick a good deal of ball in Cipriani's direction, and expect much of it to drop from a considerable height. "He'll have to do a fair bit of analysis on that aspect of their game," said Mike Ford, the defence strategist. They are also convinced the youngster will offer a more serious attacking threat than Balshaw has so far. "Some of the lines Danny is cutting in training are sensational," Ford added.
With the ringleader of the red-rose brat pack about to be let loose and the Scots unable to buy a victory, the price on a third straight English success is shortening by the second. But Ashton counselled caution. "I've been to Murrayfield when everyone expected it to be a cakewalk for us, and finished second," he warned. "They're a big side – bigger than us, all over the field – and while they haven't been winning, they've been only two or three passes away from scoring some really good tries. What's more, they know they'll find themselves in a wooden spoon game if they lose this weekend. I think this could be our toughest match of the lot."
There was a whiff of "he would say that, wouldn't he?" about those comments. But, having seen his side's inexplicable capitulation to the Welsh, Ashton could be forgiven for not shouting the odds.
Saturday's Murrayfield teams
15 H Southwell (Edinburgh)
14 R Lamont (Sale)
13 S Webster (Edinburgh)
12 G Morrison (Glasgow)
11 N Walker (Ospreys)
10 C Paterson (Gloucester)
9 M Blair (Edinburgh, capt)
1 A Jacobsen (Edinburgh)
2 R Ford (Edinburgh)
3 E Murray (Northampton)
4 N Hines (Perpignan)
5 S MacLeod (Llanelli Scarlets)
6 A Strokosch (Gloucester)
7 A Hogg (Edinburgh)
8 S Taylor (Stade Français)
Replacements: 16 F Thomson (Glasgow), 17 A Dickinson (Gloucester), 18 C Smith (Edinburgh), 19 J White (Sale), 20 K Brown (Glasgow), 21 R Lawson (Gloucester), 22 D Parks (Glasgow).
15 D Cipriani (Wasps)
14 P Sackey (Wasps)
13 J Noon (Newcastle)
12 T Flood (Newcastle)
11 L Vainikolo (Gloucester)
10 J Wilkinson (Newcastle)
9 R Wigglesworth (Sale)
1 A Sheridan (Sale)
2 L Mears (Bath)
3 P Vickery (Wasps, capt)
4 S Shaw (Wasps)
5 S Borthwick (Bath)
6 T Croft (Leicester)
7 M Lipman (Bath)
8 N Easter (Harlequins)
Replacements: 16 G Chuter (Leicester), 17 M Stevens (Bath),
18 B Kay (Leicester), 19 L Narraway (Gloucester), 20 P Hodgson (London Irish), 21 M Tait (Newcastle), 22 I Balshaw (Gloucester).
Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa)
Kick-off: 3.15pm (BBC 1)Reuse content