Danny Cipriani and Freddie Burns can challenge Owen Farrell for England No 10 shirt

World Cup fly-half spot not a certainty as revived Sale star and new Leicester man hope for big seasons

Aaron Cruden’s mesmerising performance for New Zealand as they ran rings round Australia in Auckland last weekend did two things: it forced those who hoped – maybe even believed – that the reigning world champions were in decline into an uncomfortable reappraisal, and it reopened the debate about England’s attacking game, such as it is, and who might be best equipped to spark it into life from the outside-half position.

The new Premiership campaign, which begins in eight days’ time, may well be defined by the contest at No 10.

When England embarked on their tour of All Black country three months ago, the play-making role was in flux: Owen Farrell of Saracens, the hard-as-nails incumbent, was absent on club business; Bath’s George Ford, his new understudy, was off limits after deciding that immediate surgery on a dodgy shoulder joint was more important – and, possibly, less painful – than an early meeting with such silver-ferned nasties as Ma’a Nonu and Jerome Kaino.

Although Farrell arrived in time for the second Test in Dunedin, the heavy lifting was done by two of the red-rose game’s more mercurial types, Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani. England fly-half Owen Farrell takes a penalty kick during the Six Nations International rugby Union match between England and Wales at Twickenham, West London (AFP) Owen Farrell

If Farrell remains favourite to play the pivot role when England meet Fiji in their opening World Cup match at Twickenham a little over a year from now, there is at least a chance that one of his rivals will turn the pecking order on its head.

Burns, badly affected by the horizontal pacifism of the Gloucester pack last season, is now at Leicester, preparing to play behind forwards who never lie down, even when they’re asleep. Cipriani? According to his employers at Sale, he is finally beginning to grow into his talent – to honour his gifts, after years of betraying them.

“Ninety per cent of Danny’s successful rehabilitation is down to him,” said Steve Diamond, the rugby director who brought Cipriani back from Melbourne, where he had spent two seasons in exile after a comprehensive falling-out with the national hierarchy, then under the stewardship of Martin Johnson.

“I think it’s largely to do with the natural ageing process, with maturity. He has all the talent in the world, as everyone knows, but he now understands that if he doesn’t apply himself within a team environment, it doesn’t amount to much. He’s propelled himself back into the mix, going from nowhere to doing everything that was asked of him on a tough England tour. Everything and more, if you ask me.”

Intriguingly enough, Diamond also credits the Sale captain Daniel Braid, who just happens to be… an All Black. By common consent, Braid’s arrival in the north-west was one of the smartest pieces of business conducted anywhere in the last half-dozen years: the flanker from Tauranga has, according to the boss, been the central figure in restoring a hard edge and a Musketeerish “all for one and one for all” sense of togetherness to a club that had gone just a little soft. “Danny has certainly responded positively to the spirit that’s been created,” said the boss. “I think he believes he can really take his game forward with us.”

Burns, perhaps the one English outside-half who can match Cruden trick for spellbinding trick, is in a different place entirely. If Cipriani is the undisputed first choice at Sale, the West Countryman can expect a serious challenge from the young Welsh midfielder Owen Williams, whose excellent run at Leicester last term was undermined only by a late-season brush with authority for which he is still paying a heavy price. (He was banned after a gouging incident at Northampton and has yet to feature in any of Leicester’s pre-season outings). Freddie Burns dives for a try that would be ruled out for a knock on in the 20-15 defeat to New Zealand Freddie Burns

“When it comes to selection, I always like to reward the guys who have been doing it for us,” said Richard Cockerill, the man in charge of the Tigers. “But the fact is, Owen won’t be available until the first league game, and that has made the pathway a little easier for Freddie.

There again, he’ll play only if he’s better than the other blokes in his position. That goes for all our signings, even Brad Thorn (the World Cup-winning All Black lock who applied his thumbprint to a one-year contract just recently). If there’s an 18-year-old in the academy who’s the best outside-half in the club, I’ll pick him – although if that happens, I might have to accept that I’ve got my recruitment wrong.

“Freddie’s a bright player who knows where he has to improve. He understands that while we want to see him at his most mischievous, he doesn’t have to go for the miracle shot all the time. We’re excited at the thought of what he might bring to us. In a way, I feel the same as I did when Toby Flood came to the club.”

For the record, Flood ended up with 60 England caps.

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