Weekend preview: Danny Cipriani back again hoping he can still be a 'game-changer'
Here he comes again: Danny Cipriani, the outside-half who held the future of English rugby in his hands until it slipped through his fingers and disappeared without trace, will return to Premiership action for Sale tonight, albeit off the bench – an unglamorous way to launch a campaign but better than no launch at all, which might easily have been the case following a disappointing showing in the northern club's pre-season friendly programme.
"Danny's a game-changer," said Sale's rugby director, Steve Diamond, who has had his share of frustrations and exasperations since signing Cipriani from the Melbourne-based Rebels a little over a year ago. He omitted him from the first two games of the season, but added: "He's knuckled down in training, he's bided his time and he's been positive. You can't ask for anything else."
Cipriani's celebrity dimension has been his undoing: at times, he has cast himself as the most dedicated devotee of the Gavin Henson Guide to Messing Up, although another former Rebel, the Wallaby back James O'Connor, is well on the way to relieving him of that title. Diamond confessed today that he had no control over his most high-profile recruit's private life, but he also said that it was essential that Cipriani finds a way of keeping himself away from the front pages.
"He's a brilliant player," the boss continued. "When he's been at work with us, he's kept a low profile and trained hard. He's been looking forward to getting a chance. When it comes, I hope he takes it."
Sale would certainly benefit from some vintage Cipriani pyrotechnics over the next few weeks, for if things go wrong, they may not have the energy or self-belief to haul themselves out of relegation this term in the way they did last. Memories of their surprising first-day win at Gloucester were pretty much obliterated a week ago when they lost their opening home fixture to newly promoted Newcastle, who had not been expected to win even a single game on the road. Another reverse in Salford tonight against a Wasps side who have yet to register a victory would be seriously bad for morale.
The Londoners travel north without the former England lock Tom Palmer, whose arm injury has created an opening for Kearnan Myall, who left Sale for the capital at the end of last season. David Young, the Wasps rugby director, has made three further changes of his own volition: Ben Jacobs and Charlie Davies start at centre and scrum-half respectively after performing well off the bench at Exeter last weekend, while at the sharp end, the long-serving Italian Test hooker Carlo Festuccia replaces Tom Lindsay. It will be Festuccia's competitive debut for the club.
Some way further south, Worcester will also go in search of a duck-breaking win against Harlequins at Sixways. Quins are still without the hard-tackling centre Jordan Turner-Hall, whose continuing hip problem may require surgical intervention, so Tom Casson and George Lowe will pair up in midfield once again. In the forwards, there are some tinkerings: the former England No 8 Nick Easter has been shunted into the second row to make room for Tom Guest, while Rob Buchanan and Will Collier start in the front row.
Worcester are perhaps more bullish than they have any right to be after two defeats, but coach Dean Ryan likes to present his sunny side early in a campaign, before the sense-of-humour failures kick in. "I don't think we're a million miles off," he argued. "At some stage, someone's going to get bumped and we're going to gain confidence. Quins are a brilliant side and I like what they do, but Friday nights are special at Sixways and I'm looking forward to this."
Meanwhile, the Premiership teams received some encouraging news today, although it had nothing to do with the on-going argument over the future of the Heineken Cup, which is beginning to resemble a rugby version of trench warfare. Independently verified figures show that BT Sport, with whom the clubs signed a £152m broadcasting deal last year, pulled in almost 200,000 viewers for last weekend's Bath-Leicester game – which underpinned a 130 per cent audience rise over the season's first two weekends.
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