Danny Cipriani intends to leave troubled past behind and fly under the radar with England
England’s highly gifted No 10 is ready to make new headlines on the pitch in New Zealand
Danny Cipriani’s current reading matter is Blink, a nine-year-old tome by the New Yorker journalist Malcolm Gladwell that carries with it an intriguing subtitle: “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”. As a slice of pop social science writing, it has its fascinations. As a guide to life for a celebrity outside-half whose gifts as an attacking playmaker must be set against an equally lavish talent for doing the wrong thing in the wrong place at the wrong moment, its appeal is less obvious. The last thing Cipriani needs to do on his return to the England set-up is remove his thinking cap.
“The book tells you that more often than not, your first instincts are right,” explained England’s most talked about No 10 – a player who commands more column inches than Owen Farrell or Stephen Myler or Freddie Burns, and has even given that Wilkinson chap a run for his money down the years. His instincts on the field of play have at times been extremely persuasive: Brian Ashton, the former England coach and Cipriani’s philosopher king for the last decade, still argues that when it comes to the art and craft of stand-off play, as opposed to the mechanics, the 26-year-old Londoner is quite something. Unfortunately, the same can be said, in a more negative sense, for his instincts away from the pitch.
It is good to report, therefore, that Cipriani is deeply serious about leaving the past behind. The days of comprehensive fallings-out with team managements, ill-advised adventures in night spots and all too public arguments with double-decker buses – not to mention an unfortunate preference for the front pages of the public prints rather than the back pages – have, he says, been consigned to the fish-and-chip wrapping of history. Now, two seasons into his second tour of Premiership duty, he wants to make the best of himself.
“I know I’m not England’s first choice at the moment,” he said before flying to New Zealand for next month’s three-Test series with the All Blacks, “and there’s a need for humility, but I know where I want to be. I want to return from this tour a better rugby player, so this is about getting my head down and really going for it.
“There’s a lot to do in terms of getting up to speed with this current England environment, which is an extremely testing one. But you don’t want an easy ride, do you? When things are tough and demanding, when there are obstacles to be overcome …that’s when you feel you’re achieving something.”
Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, is always willing to give a “difficult” player a second chance – Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum-half, and Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker, are two beneficiaries of the Cumbrian’s enlightened approach to man management – but third and fourth chances are generally considered to be unavailable.
Lancaster and Cipriani have worked together before and know each other reasonably well, but the boss was still keen to have a cards-on-the-table discussion with the errant midfielder when he arrived in camp to embark on his England rehabilitation.
“Yes, I’ve had to make changes, but that’s part of life,” Cipriani said. “As you grow up, you chill a bit more – you realise that if you’re going to make it, you have to do it in the rugby way. It was quite nerve-racking, coming in on the first day, but it wasn’t as if I’d been brought in as the youngster of the squad. The thing that strikes me is the feeling of pride amongst the players: everyone is on edge but in a good way, knowing that they have to perform. Not just on the training field, either. You’re expected to do a lot of analysis, a lot of homework: the coaches are very straight-talking and big on application.
“But I think I’m different now. I think I’ll find this a fulfilling experience – an emotional one, going out to New Zealand and being involved against the world champions, but a completely positive one. Actually, I think I’ll be helped by the fact that during my time in Australia [he fled the England regime of Martin Johnson in 2010 and surfaced in Melbourne with the newly created Rebels franchise] I played against a lot of these people in Super XV rugby. The All Blacks have a lot of quality outside-halves available to them, but we also have some pretty decent ones over here.”
One of whom is Freddie Burns, late of Gloucester and now en route to Leicester. When the squad left Heathrow for Auckland yesterday evening, Burns was considered marginal favourite to start the opening Test in Eden Park in 10 days’ time. But there will be much to play for on the practice paddocks of the North Island between now and the meeting with Richie McCaw’s band of silver-ferned brothers: Lancaster has made it abundantly clear that the final call at No 10 will be evidence-based, with full account taken of the two contenders’ respective performances in training next week.
“Freddie is a quality player,” Cipriani said, and when it was pointed out to him that Burns’ form suffered badly over the course of a dragged-out retreat from the Gloucester scene, there was an instant retort. “Quality doesn’t disappear overnight,” he argued. “Freddie is upbeat and he’s enjoying himself in camp. He’s a happy kind of guy, always smiling, and he understands the environment, having been a part of it for quite a while. Me? I have a job to do just getting up to scratch.”
For all that, the early signs are encouraging. Lancaster has already praised Cipriani for his attitude, using the word “diligent” in his connection – the kind of description members of the previous England hierarchy might struggle to recognise. It comes down to this: one of England’s great lost talents is on the road to rediscovery, thanks in no small part to the fixture mess-up that has removed Farrell and Myler from the immediate equation. If Cipriani stays on the straight and narrow, there is no telling what he might achieve. If he tries to cut corners, there will be no way back. That should get him thinking.
Cipriani timeline: the highs and lows
December 2004: Makes Wasps debut against Bristol in the Powergen Cup, aged 17.
February 2008: International bow in Six Nations loss to Wales.
March: Dropped by England after photographed in a nightclub on eve of Scotland match. Recalled to inspire 33-10 victory over Ireland.
May: Misses tour of New Zealand after fracturing right ankle.
October: Suffers cut nose and lip after training bust-up with Wasps team-mate Josh Lewsey.
February 2010: Moves to Australia and Melbourne Rebels after seven years at Wasps.
May 2011: Fined and suspended after nightclub incidents in Melbourne and Sydney.
February 2012: Returns to England with Sale Sharks.
April 2013: Hit by double-decker bus on pub crawl in Leeds.
August: Dumped by model girlfriend Kelly Brook after allegations of cheating.
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