Cipriani's Australian adventure starts with a spot of bench-warming duty

English exile is overlooked for starting place as his new club the Rebels kick off their maiden Super 15 season
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The Independent Online

Danny Cipriani is no stranger to the limelight but will have to settle for a spot in the shadows when the southern hemisphere's latest union franchise, the Rebels, kick off the Super 15 against Sydney's Waratahs in their home city of Melbourne this morning.

It will draw a huge crowd and massive excitement Down Under but Cipriani, who gave up his shot at getting into the England World Cup squad when he quit Wasps for a new experience in Australia, will be sitting on the bench for the opening fixture, having lost out in the race for a starting position to the Aussie journeyman fly-half James Hilgendorf.

With the World Cup just eight months away, there will be a natural curiosity to see how the southern hemisphere sides are faring. And with the former England fly-half Cipriani, who has seven caps and who signed for the Melbourne Rebels last February, liable to be part of the action at some stage, you suspect even Martin Johnson may set his alarm clock.

The Rebels' coach, Rod Macqueen, has admitted in the past that Cipriani's celebrity image, largely due to having dated the model Kelly Brook, did not conform with the Rebels' rugby code. "One of our pledges is 'We are not me', let's put the team first and that's hard when you've got someone with a profile like Danny," he said.

But Macqueen dismissed any notion that Cipriani's relegation to the bench for today's opener is due to disciplinary matters. "It's definitely not true," the coach said.

"I'm certainly happy with the way he has been going. I've always seen a rugby team as consisting of 22 players not the starting 15, and the fact Danny is on the bench this week certainly doesn't mean he might not start next week. But having said that, Jimmy Hilgendorf played very well throughout the trials and we think this time Jimmy would be better starting."

Hilgendorf came to the Rebels from Japanese side Kobelco Steelers and was expected to be Cipriani's under-study for the season, but his selection ahead of the former Wasp shows Cipriani's place in the side is not a foregone conclusion. The Englishman's second-choice position, full-back, has been filled by Julian Huxley, the former Brumbies No 15, who has only just returned to the game following a two-year break while he recovered from surgery to remove a brain tumour.

Until Cipriani plays, Andy Goode remains the only English fly-half to have plyed his trade in the Super Rugby competition. Goode, who spent part of last season with the Durban-based Sharks, was sin-binned on his first two outings and ridiculed by former team-mate Rod Kafer, who described him as the "only player in Super Rugby with a comb-over".

Along with Cipriani, there will be other familiar names to those with an interest in Premiership rugby. Former Wales and Gloucester No 8 Gareth Delve has been elected Rebels vice-captain for the season and former Bath flanker Michael Lipman also starts. They will be alongside luminaries such as former Gloucester prop Greg Somerville, ex-Newport Gwent Dragons lock-come-flanker Hoani Macdonald and Rebels captain, the Wallaby Stirling Mortlock.

Despite the big-name signings and the wealth of expectation, Macqueen recognises the magnitude of the test ahead of him. The last time a new franchise joined Super Rugby in 2006, Perth-based Western Force, they won just one match in their opening season.

"We know this will be a great test for our side. All the sides in Super Rugby have been playing together for many seasons and it will be tough for us as we are definitely the new kids on the block," Macqueen said. "The excitement around the club this week has been incredible."

Rebels you'll recognise

Danny Cipriani

After a horrendous injury against Bath in 2008, the 23-year-old fly-half has struggled to regain his form. A move to Australia will hopefully see him realise his huge potential.

Michael Lipman

The former England openside flanker left Bath in 2009 in controversial circumstances after allegedly refusing to take a drugs test. Lipman signed for the Rebels on 24 May.

Gareth Delve

Former Gloucester captain and Wales back row Delve, 28, has been named the Melbourne side's vice-captain for the season.