Cipriani storm threatens to blow apart England plans

The less England said about Danny Cipriani yesterday – and they went out of their way to say as little as possible about the decision to drop the Wasps prodigy from the team for being spotted and snapped at a Mayfair nightspot in the small hours of Thursday morning – the more the incident dominated the build-up to this afternoon's Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield. The game is likely to be played in conditions that might have been designed to make life impossible for a full-back. Strange to relate, Cipriani may yet have cause to thank his lucky stars.

Iain Balshaw, dumped by the head coach, Brian Ashton, earlier this week after showing too many defensive frailties in the first three rounds of Six Nations activity, has been reinstated as a consequence of his rival's nocturnal pratfall. He will therefore have to deal with the high winds predicted by the local meteorologists. The very best of British to him. On a still night in Paris a fortnight ago he missed one catch by the record margin of almost 20 metres. If the current weather forecast turns out to be accurate and the Scots put boot to ball with hostile intent, his misses may have to be measured in miles.

Ashton would much have preferred to spend time talking about the unique combination of motivational factors that makes the Scots so dangerous, or the specific threat posed by the hosts' reconstituted back row of Alasdair Strokosch, Ally Hogg and Simon Taylor – a well-balanced unit equipped to cause any amount of grief to an inexperienced English trio in which Tom Croft, the young Leicester flanker, will be making his first international start. Sadly for the head coach, everyone wanted to discuss the one player who should be playing, but isn't.

Some of the exchanges were gloriously off the wall. Asked whether he felt there was any difference between a player emerging from a nightclub at 12.30am so close to an important fixture and one leaving the Royal Opera House at a similar time, the coach said: "I don't think opera goes on that late." Informed that a Wagner production might easily do so, he retorted with heavy sarcasm: "There aren't any Wagner fans in the England squad. I checked only this morning." The temptation to throw in a question about Brahms and Liszt was close to overwhelming.

Sticking resolutely to his view that Cipriani had behaved inappropriately, even though the 20-year-old visited the club briefly to give match tickets to friends and did not take so much as a sip of an alcoholic drink, Ashton said the decision was his alone, adding that he did not consider any other form of punishment. "It's an unusual situation in so far as it's the first time I've had to deal with an issue like this, but I'm perfectly comfortable with the action I've taken," he said. "The public perception doesn't interest me. I respect everyone's opinion, but I happen to be the one in charge and I have my job to do."

Twenty-four hours after giving Ashton both barrels for what he considered a heavy-handed response to Cipriani's "naïvety", the Wasps director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, confirmed the player had been selected for his club's London derby with Harlequins in High Wycombe tomorrow afternoon, albeit among the replacements. By the time that game kicks off we will know to what degree Balshaw, a favourite of Ashton's since the coach spotted him playing schools rugby back in the late 1990s, is likely to figure in the England set-up beyond the end of this season.

"I've no idea how Iain will respond to being brought in under these circumstances, but I hope he responds positively," Ashton said. "We spoke earlier in the week about why he wasn't in the side, so I imagine he's worked out for himself what he has to do to perform in the way an international full-back should perform. I'd like to think he'll turn in a display here that will allow him to stick two fingers up to me and say I made the wrong call. In the first half against Wales I thought he was playing at something like his best but he hasn't reproduced that since. There again, we've been guilty of failing to bring the best out of him."

Scotland find themselves on a long and barren road. Realistic candidates for a high Six Nations finish at the start of the campaign – their muscular pack and Chris Paterson's ultra-reliable marksmanship seemed likely to threaten all-comers – they have endured a miserable few weeks, failing to score a try against both France and Wales before being sucker-punched into submission by the Irish. Not even Paterson, a 100 per cent kicker at the World Cup last autumn, is on his game at present, and it seems inevitable he will have to watch his opposite number, Jonny Wilkinson, establish himself as the most prolific accumulator of points in the history of the sport at some stage in this afternoon's proceedings.

Yet Ashton is entirely justified in wondering whether his side might be about to experience their most severe 80-minute examination since the World Cup final defeat by the Springboks four and a half months ago.

"We're expecting one hell of a battle," he said. "The Scots don't like losing to the English, full stop, and they know that if they finish second here, they'll find themselves in a wooden spoon match next weekend. Put these things together and you have quite a potent mix from the motivational point of view."

England are always expected to win at Murrayfield, which explains, at least in part, why they find it such a pig of a venue, even without a distraction like the Cipriani fandango. Worryingly for them, the events of the last 48 hours have complicated matters spectacularly. Should the favourites lose, or even go close to losing, and Balshaw hangs up the "gone missing" sign, there will be an unholy rumpus – one that Ashton, in particular, will not relish for a moment.


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