Cipriani: Prodigy makes early comeback

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Wasps' boy wonder may be the new favourite of the paparazzi but, writes Chris Hewett, his rapid return from injury is headline news

It took Jonny Wilkinson more than 50 international appearances to persuade the paparazzi that there was more to life than the royal family and Jordan's cleavage, although with Prince Harry sticking to the England team like a limpet, there was no need for photographers at the sharp end of the business to make things difficult for themselves by choosing between the two. Now, they have Danny Cipriani as well – a chiselled rugby pin-up far more comfortable with celebrity than the inward-looking Wilkinson was, or is ever likely to be. Heaven.

The fact that Cipriani is being followed by every lens in town after one solitary start for his country – his other appearances in the white shirt were both off the bench – says much about the speed at which he operates, both on the field and off it. He has certain things in common with Wilkinson: both were union prodigies, spotted early and feted by the very best coaches in the country, and both know what it is to suffer orthopaedic trauma of the career-threatening variety. But this is merely a smokescreen, for whatever Danny is, he isn't Jonny.

When Cipriani returns to league rugby with his club, Wasps, in High Wycombe tonight – in a starting position, rather than the bench role everyone had expected – he will break all known records for injury recovery as cleanly and comprehensively as he broke his ankle during a Premiership semi-final with Bath at the same venue, Adams Park, last May. The most optimistic forecasts suggested he would still be hobbling at this stage; that he might, if he was extremely fortunate, be playing again towards the back end of November. Yet here he is, weeks and months ahead of schedule, preparing to face – you guessed it – Bath. What does this reveal about the 20-year-old Londoner's powers of fortitude?

Rob Smith knows what it reveals. "It speaks volumes for his single-mindedness," said the Wasps academy manager yesterday. "The thing you have to understand about Danny is his strength of focus. He's still a young man finding his way in the world, and yes, I always worry when the celebrity element kicks in and pictures start appearing in parts of the newspapers you don't usually associate with rugby union. But while he's had the odd silly moment, he understands that he is where he is purely because of his rugby. He has good people around him, players as well as coaches, and if he plays his cards right, as I'm convinced he will, he'll be fine. He may have attracted a few headlines, but he's not lost in dreamland. He isn't the type."

Family and friends aside, few people have spent more time with Cipriani, or worked harder on his behalf, than Smith, a modest character with precious little to be modest about. Back in the Nineties, the West Countryman coached a high-quality Wasps senior team before moving into player development. Largely responsible for creating the academy model – small numbers, intensive training, high yield – now used by the majority of Premiership clubs, he has produced the likes of James Haskell, Tom Rees, Dominic Waldouck and the highly-regarded young No 8 Hugo Ellis. The outside-half may be the main event, but the undercard is equally impressive.

Smith first cottoned on to Cipriani as a player of Test potential when he saw him as a 15-year-old playing for Whitgift School in a national cup final at Twickenham in 2003 – the year Wilkinson dropped the World Cup-winning goal that catapulted him into the stratosphere of hero-worship he inhabits to this day. "Brian Ashton [the former England coach and a talent-spotter of repute] was also there, and we reached the same conclusion simultaneously," he recalled. "Danny ran the game in a way you don't see many people run one, irrespective of age or standard. I didn't have to think very hard about whether or not to invite him down to the club.

"And there it started: three years of watching a player obviously blessed with fantastic natural ability going through his full range of skills, mostly at moments that were totally inappropriate. He had attitude – lots of attitude – to go with all the variety and flexibility he brought to his rugby: there was this 'right, I've done that, now I'll show you what else I can do' side to him. He was exciting to watch, because in many ways, you want an outside-half to have that 'I'm it' streak.

"But that approach doesn't always pay dividends when a player moves up a level and Danny has had his fair share of sulks. It's not easy for a youngster when he goes from being easily the best player in his school to third of three in a club environment; when the realisation dawns that what worked for him among a bunch of teenagers doesn't cut much ice with the grown-ups. He always came back strong, though. He never sulked for long."

There is no Wasps academy team – "We don't play matches," Smith said, bluntly – but Cipriani was rarely short of rugby. During his time at Whitgift, the fixture list was as demanding as any school programme in the country, and with Ashton drafting him into the nascent national academy and pushing him through the England age-group sides, lack of exposure to match conditions was not an issue. Heavily-built in his mid-teens, he appeared to some observers to be short of pace. Smith disputes this, though. "I checked back over my records and I can tell you that he was very quick at 16 and 17," he reported. "He's a big lad, but he's fast on his feet. He'll get faster, too. The conditioning regime at Wasps is second to none, and he's working with Margot Wells [the specialist sprint trainer]. She'll really get him going."

Just as Cipriani's return at this juncture gets the rugby juices flowing. This may not be a World Cup year, but with England in considerable disarray ahead of an autumn international series that starts with a physically demanding set-to with the Pacific Islands next month and grows progressively more challenging up to and including a climactic meeting with the All Blacks on 29 November, it could not be a more testing one. Will Martin Johnson, no one's idea of a wild-eyed radical, mark his arrival as England manager as Ashton marked his departure as head coach, by picking Cipriani ahead of Wilkinson? God knows, it is not the only decision he has to make. It is, however, the most important.

We have been here before, albeit not for 20-odd years. Over the course of a decade, from 1984 to 1994, two very different outside-halves staked claims to the England No 10 shirt: Rob Andrew, one of Cipriani's predecessors at Wasps, and Stuart Barnes of Bath. The argument divided the entire rugby community, from the most knowledgeable strategists among the coaching classes to the most humble punters in the clubhouse stand. Andrew was cast as the Wilkinson of his day: the ultra-conservative establishment favourite; the risk-averse automaton who played with a big boot and a narrow appreciation of rugby's possibilities. And Barnes? He was the free spirit, the rebel, the devil-may-care maverick who loved working his way up the nostrils of Twickenham Man. Unfairly simplistic? Put it this way: Andrew now earns a mint as the governing body's director of elite rugby, while Barnes makes his money as a sharp-witted, frequently caustic observer of the union game.

If it is not easy to see Wilkinson following the Andrew route into governance – Twickenham has never been particularly fertile ground for practising Buddhists – it is not entirely fanciful to imagine Cipriani as a non-conformist in the Barnes tradition. In the pure rugby sense, Cipriani has a Barnesian willingness to play off the cuff, underpinned by an iron understanding of what it takes to win a game of rugby. Away from the pitch, he too has been known to indulge in a little socialising, and his responses to interviewers frequently reveal a brand of self-confidence with which Barnes was not wholly unfamiliar.

We stand, then, on the brink of another sharp schism over who should wear the crown. Cipriani versus Wilkinson, idealism versus pragmatism, art versus science. The choice is yours, although in real terms, it is Johnson's. Always assuming, of course, that both men stay fit for two games in a row.

Cipriani's luck changes

With his good looks Danny Cipriani is never short of female company, however his standing in the pin-up stakes have suffered a couple of embarrassing reverses.

He was among male models who bared their chests on the British version of MTV's 'My Super Sweet 16' but the wannabe date for one of the birthday girls was rejected for being too skinny.

A liaison with Romanian Cheeky Girl Monica Irimia ended when she found out about an alleged fling with model Larissa Summers, who was later revealed to have been born a man.

Recently though, things have taken a turn for the better. Cipriani has been seen on the arm of Kelly Brook, the 28-year-old model eight years his senior, who specialises in bras and lingerie for big-breasted women. No wonder his ankle is better.

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