Cipriani must improve to be perfect 10
Free-spirited fly-half returns with a clean slate but he's still a long way from succeeding Jonny
Sunday 03 January 2010
Danny Cipriani will have to wait until the summer tour of Australia and New Zealand at the earliest before resuming his England career. The Wasps fly-half has not done enough to oust Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood and Shane Geraghty as the country's candidates at No 10 in the 32-man senior squad to be named on Wednesday week.
The good news for the much talked-about Cipriani, who will play at full-back against Newcastle today in his second match after a two-month injury lay-off, is that after blotting his copybook with the national management at a training camp in Portugal at the start of 2009, he goes into the new year with a clean disciplinary slate. The bad news is that Martin Johnson and his coaches are as yet unconvinced the 22-year-old has the necessary skills to be an international No 10. There is a belief that Cipriani is a free spirit better suited as a full-back, on the bench or continuing to develop with his club and the second-string England Saxons.
A similar argument weighed against Northampton's Ben Foden, who was told to forget his pretensions as a scrum-half due to lack of communication with the forwards, but has found his niche at full-back. Foden will vie with Delon Armitage of London Irish for the No 15 jersey against Wales in the Six Nations' Championship opener at Twickenham on 6 February, while Riki Flutey will reclaim the inside-centre position if he proves his fitness for French club Brive.
Tellingly, both Armitage and Flutey have earned what a well-placed England source called "enough credit" to be recalled almost immediately after their shoulder injuries, whereas Cipriani still has much to prove.
The source described as "complete rubbish" a tabloid tale that Cipriani got an England coach in a headlock on the pre-Six Nations trip to Portugal last January. But it is understood that a pattern of behaviour including turning up late for meetings and leaving the playbook lying around afterwards counted against him. When The Sun – whose former editor Stuart Higgins, now running a PR firm, was advising Cipriani at the time – carried reports of a bust-up, Cipriani was confronted by Johnson and denied any involvement in feeding the story.
The pivotal fly-half position, often referred to by England's attack coach Brian Smith as the "general" or "quarterback", requires trust from team-mates and Wilkinson, who started the three autumn Tests, and Flood, who guided England to wins over France and Scotland in last season's Six Nations, are way ahead on that score.
Then there is the gossip columns' fixation with him and his actress girlfriend Kelly Brook which, while a million flashbulbs away from that lavished on Posh and Becks, has no parallel in English rugby, as Wasps' New Zealander director of rugby, Tony Hanks, points out. "In New Zealand everyone wants to know about the All Blacks," said Hanks. "Here there's only three or four players at one time who get that real attention. Danny's got to deal with that and with the expectation. We've got to help him and that's not just my role, it's the other players' role as well." Wasps have always been adept at keeping egos in check. They restore Dave Walder at fly-half today after Cipriani missed a handful of tricky goal-kicks in the 21-20 defeat of Harlequins a week ago.
After being named in the Saxons squad last July, Cipriani made a good start to the season before fracturing a fibula in October. He has not played for England since November 2008 when, arguably, Johnson rushed him back too soon after a broken ankle. So his performance against Ireland in March 2008 sticks out like a gold star in a troubled international apprenticeship, though it is routinely overlooked that the Irish were in disarray with first-choice centres Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy absent and Eddie O'Sullivan about to resign as coach.
Smith attended Wasps training last Wednesday, to be briefed by Hanks and catch up with Cipriani and other England prospects including centre Dom Waldouck, wing Paul Sackey and No 8 Dan Ward-Smith. "There have been coaches trying to pigeon-hole any England fly-half into what Jonny Wilkinson was doing and I don't think that's right," said Walder, a long-time understudy to Wilkinson while the pair were at Newcastle. "You had to bench-press exactly what Jonny bench-pressed in 2003, and practice kicking for an hour and a half like he did. Danny is a unique individual; let's embrace what he and the other contenders do, as long as it's working for them and they're working on their weaknesses."
Cipriani has been told by England to work on his physicality in defence – ironically, a defensive drill when one of the forwards coaches stepped into the attacking line is thought to have given rise to the Portugal "headlock" tale – and communication.
"This is my second spell at Wasps and I remember when Danny was just out of school and desperate to get better," said Hanks. "He is still that guy who wants to improve. It's not about being famous for him, it's about being a good rugby player."
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