Prodigal son Cipriani returns home after a spell on the far side
English rugby's enfant terrible is a glamorous figure here and in southern hemisphere but he's looking forward to hard work
You keep your head down as best you can," says Danny Cipriani of his new life in Manchester, where rich and famous sportsmen tend to play with a round ball, not an oval one. "You've got to be responsible and know what you're doing. I think as time goes by when you get older, you understand your responsibilities."
A changed man? The new rugby season is a new start for Cipriani, home in England but away from his London home, playing for Sale Sharks in their own new surroundings of the spick-and-span Salford City Stadium.
The Barton Bridge flyover hums with M60 traffic as Cipriani passes and jinks and shouts instructions in a training session on the bowling-green turf of the 12,000-capacity ground that Sale are sharing with the Reds rugby league club.
Indoors, the Sharks' chief executive, Steve Diamond, is mucking in, screwing framed photos of past players to the wall in a supporters' bar. Outside, Cipriani briefly mucks around with a ball-juggling act that reminds you he is a fine footballer and cricketer as well as a seven-times capped England rugby player – or he has been getting tips, peeping through the security screen that separates Sale's training ground from Manchester City's.
But this is emphatically not the world of Tevez, Aguero and multi-million pound contracts. This is Sale attempting to justify their "northern superclub" branding from a base of 3,100 season ticket-holders and a burgeoning 90-strong academy. They hope – but cannot expect – the stadium to be full when Saracens visit on Saturday week. Some of that hope is vested in perhaps the closest thing to an enfant terrible the mostly conservative world of English rugby union possesses (though Cipriani has never been arrested, unlike a couple of the current England squad). He is certainly unique as an England back who has had two seasons – albeit the second one was cut short when the move to Sale was arranged – in southern-hemisphere Super Rugby, playing for Melbourne Rebels.
"I wasn't in the England squad for a reason," Cipriani says when training is done, with reference to his omission by the former manager, Martin Johnson. "I just thought the best thing for me to do was to go somewhere else and progress my game." He has "improved a lot", he says, "bouncing off" world-class players such as the Wallaby backs James O'Connor, Kurtley Beale and Stirling Mortlock, and facing the "different breed" that is the New Zealanders.
"I'm looking forward to the week- in, week-out grind of the Premiership," he says. "There's a laidback environment here. Steve Diamond is running the club extremely well off the field – he has done well by getting Bryan Redpath in [as head coach] – and everyone gets on with everyone. I loved Melbourne and made some friends for life there. I just knew I had to come back because I had things I wanted to achieve here in the Premiership and…"
And there he consciously hesitates, because he is damned if he will easily add the words "play for England". He has a perception that dastardly headline-writers will twist his obvious, no-need-to-explain desire to wear an England jersey again into a suggestion that he thinks it is a God-given right. This is where Cipriani and his inner belief system sit uncomfortably with the inevitable vicissitudes of his sporting and private lives appearing in newspapers and on the internet.
It started almost as soon as he won the 2007 Heineken Cup with Wasps at the age of 19 and was capped under the then England coach Brian Ashton the following year. Non-rugby media were delighted to latch on to a potential "golden boy" who was English, photogenic, lascivious, opinionated and generally up for anything going. Throw in a pair of serious fracture injuries and a transfer of power with England from the free-thinking attack coach Ashton to the former lock forward turned novice manager Johnson, and the upward curve of Cipriani's career began to look as if it might fall off a cliff.
"Everything's come round and it's brought me to where it is now," says Cipriani, who scored 122 points in 19 games for the Rebels but was dogged by stories of misbehaviour. Ashton is coming to Sale soon as a consultant, and Diamond's view, as we watch another recruit in Scotland's lock Richie Gray, is supportive. "We won't keep him under lock and key. Danny has matured a lot. A man is different at 24 to what he is at 20 or 21 – fact. It surprises some people at the club that he is a student of the game, he watches and understands other players. He goes to rugby league games to learn stuff.
"He's opinionated, of course, and you want that. You don't want someone saying, 'Yes, no, yes, no'. If he pins the No 10 spot down like he can do he'll achieve his dream of playing again for England."
There: Diamond has said it. Cipriani elaborates: "My goal is to make sure we as a club are top-four at the end of the season and that we honour ourselves in the Heineken Cup, get out of our group – those are the things that are important to me. If we do that, you will see people like [scrum-half] Dwayne Peel and [No 8] Andy Powell playing for Wales; you will see [full-back] Rob Miller called up for England.
"I can't have an effect on what England do until I'm in the squad and until I'm having chats with Stuart [Lancaster, the England head coach]. I haven't spoken to him since I got back. There's no point even thinking about that until I'm playing well and putting my hand up each week. I could get off to a flyer… but that's got to be down to the whole team."
The kit man helps him peel off his training top, revealing an array of tattoos including the initials "TLM" for the late Tom Maynard, a mutual friend of the Surrey cricketer Rory Hamilton-Brown. From shoulder to elbow there is an angel (bearing a striking resemblance to a former girlfriend, Kelly Brook) flanked by two cherubs. "Double protection," Cipriani explains. I remark that the only people you used to see with "inks" were sailors and… "Jailbirds," he finishes. "I'm a prisoner." The temptation to turn psychoanalytical rears its unhelpful head.
Does he feel free to do what he wants? "Um… yeah. You've got to, really. Freedom of speech and all that." He sees his newly opened Twitter account as the antidote to those who say anything inaccurate about him. On it he took exception to a recent newspaper article headlined, "I'm the KP of rugby". (That's KP as in Kevin Pietersen, not Katie Price, another of the ladies who have been in Cipriani's life).
"I never said I was the KP of rugby," he says. "I just said there's more to every story than what you read. People judge the Kevin Pietersen thing but they don't know the full story. I know people in the cricket world and I kind of feel sorry for the guy. It's just an example of, you know, nonsense. In Australia it was said I got voted off a tour by the players when it was down to the coaches and contractual things, when it would have been expensive for me to go."
So that's one story set straight, and let us pray with the angels that Cipriani makes news now for the right reasons. We wait to enjoy again his outstanding foot speed – an advantage he has over the incumbent England fly-halves, Toby Flood and Owen Farrell – and his smooth pass and hefty kicking; watch, too, for improvements on his weaknesses: the charge-downs, the occasional unwillingness to tackle and the withering glares at team-mates when things go wrong. For Danny Cipriani, it should be quite enough to say there is everything to play for.
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