Can Danny Cipriani ever come in from the cold?
No 10 wasn't even in Sale's last squad so poor has his defence been. On Friday night, he starts against Worcester but will he take his latest chance, asks Simon Turnbull
Thursday 27 December 2012
We have been here before, have we not? A sublime sporting talent wasting away on the west side of Manchester.
At least George Best got his glory days in first, winning the European Cup with United and the Ballon d'Or, the European footballer of the year trophy, before frittering away his brilliance in his mid-twenties. At 25, Danny Cipriani's world-beating talents have been in suspension for four years now.
It was on 29 November 2008 that Cipriani won his last cap for England, as a 74th-minute replacement for Jamie Noon in a 32-6 defeat against the All Blacks at Twickenham. Five weeks away from the start of the 2013 Six Nations Championship, the once princely fly-half is about as far from a recall to the national No 10 shirt as he has ever been since Martin Johnson deemed him surplus to requirements in the summer of 2009.
Last Sunday, Cipriani was not even deemed worthy of a return to face his former club. With Sale desperate to pick up pre-Christmas points against Wasps at Adams Park, John Mitchell – the hard-bitten Kiwi brought in by chief executive Steve Diamond to give the Sharks some teeth – left the one-time wunderkind of English rugby out in the cold completely, out of his match-day 23.
Tomorrow night, in the wake of that 25-18 defeat, Cipriani returns to not just the fold but the pivotal position for the club five points adrift at the foot of the Premiership table. He does so, replacing the injured Nick Macleod for the visit of Worcester Warriors to the City of Salford Stadium, with a point to prove, not to mention a career to rebuild.
Ever since his return to England last summer, following his two years in exile with the Melbourne Rebels, Cipriani has struggled to nail down the No 10 shirt at Sale. A man-of-the-match performance off the bench in a 34-33 home win against Cardiff Blues in the Heineken Cup in mid-October might have been a launch pad. Even then, though, Bryan Redpath, who started the season in charge of team affairs as Sale's director of rugby, pointed to the lingering shortcomings in the all-round game of his marquee summer signing.
"Danny's attacking flair has never been in question," said the former Scotland scrum-half, now head coach following Mitchell's arrival last month. "For me, there are two other elements to his game – controlling field position and making his tackles – both of which he did well today. It's great to see Danny perform like that. It opens the door for some consistent performances."
But consistency has been a quality consistently lacking in Cipriani's play since the highs of his early senior days – starring in a Heineken Cup final win for Wasps as a teenager in 2007 and sparkling on his first start for his country, against Ireland at Twickenham in the Six Nations, the following spring.
When it came to testing himself away to Toulon in the Heineken Cup two weeks ago, Cipriani's game crumbled as Sale slumped to a 62-0 defeat, their heaviest thumping in the continent's premier club competition.
Mitchell was not impressed. A no-nonsense No 8 with Sale in his playing days, and subsequently the club's director of rugby before moving on to Clive Woodward's England back-room staff and becoming head coach of the All Blacks, the 48-year-old New Zealander did not mince his words in dropping Cipriani for the trip to High Wycombe.
"If you can't defend, there's no place for you in Premiership rugby," Mitchell said. "All I've asked for him to do is defend. Last week his defence was good at times until he chose to be an individual. You have to serve your team-mates before yourself. If he shifts in that area he comes back into contention like everyone else.
"He took it [being dropped] like a good man. It wasn't a shock to him because two weeks before I had set out some criteria for him to meet. Obviously, there was a contrast between his two performances and I didn't like the second."
Neither did Brian Kennedy. Sale's joint-owner made his displeasure public, saying: "Danny had a dreadful game in defence last week. And if you're not prepared to put your body on the line for this club, who pay your wages and give you the chance to play at the highest level each week, then you won't be in the squad, will you?"
It was not a question Kennedy was expecting to be asking when he pinned his faith and his money to Cipriani to inspire Sale to become a flagship northern super club in their new home and under the new direction of Redpath, who was lured from Gloucester in the summer. All parties in the project appear to be at a crossroads.
With just one win in 11 matches, Sale are in danger of losing their top-flight status. With Mitchell on the scene in a "consultancy" role, Redpath has already suffered a demotion. And Cipriani is in peril of suffering the same fate as Best: leaving his huge talent largely unfulfilled and missing the biggest showcase of them all.
Northern Ireland were never strong enough to qualify for a football World Cup in Best's international days and, having been out of the frame for the 2011 rugby union equivalent, Cipriani is a long way from the England picture three and a half years or so out from the 2015 tournament on home soil.
He has, seemingly at least, curbed the playboy lifestyle that delayed his England debut under Brian Ashton and ultimately alienated Johnson. He has, though, yet to gain the cussed defensive qualities that have helped to keep Jonny Wilkinson on the international radar for so long and that have put Owen Farrell at the head of the current queue of contenders for the England fly-half position.
As a role model, he could do worse than look across at his opposite number at kick-off time tomorrow night. At 32, Andy Goode is still going strong in the Premiership. He was never the best of English No 10s but made the most of the gifts at his disposal. The old Worcester warrior has 17 caps to his name, 10 more than the allegedly toothless Sale Shark.
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