Danny Cipriani must have seen it coming from a mile away. So too Billy Twelvetrees. Rejection, painful at the best of times and positively heartbreaking three weeks before the start of a World Cup, has been looming over the two playmakers since early summer, so while the confirmation they received on Wednesday was unpleasant it was not an unpleasant surprise.
If Cipriani had been in the slightest doubt as to his prospects, the most recent pronouncements of Andy Farrell, the England backs coach, brought a brutal kind of clarity. To what extent had the celebrity midfielder’s piercing cry against the dying of the light in Paris at the weekend impacted on the selectors? Barely at all, apparently.
“Twenty minutes of rugby cannot be the sole reason you pick someone,” Farrell said in response to this heavily loaded question. “Or even 60 minutes of rugby.” That was a clear reference to the outstanding performance of another midfield contender, the Exeter youngster Henry Slade, in the first warm-up contest with France at Twickenham.
“Selection has to be based on what’s right for the group. About what you’ve learnt about a person – his character, his skill levels, his leadership – after working with him day in and day out,” he added.
“Obviously, you like to watch people on the pitch and see how cohesively they fit into a team performance, but you can’t go on just one piece of evidence. We don’t deal in perception. If we did that, we’d become blinkered. You have to go on facts.”
Many good judges, including a posse of internationals from the recent past, can currently be heard wondering, while staring into their beer, if the coaches have not blinkered themselves on the subject of Sam Burgess, who has yet to achieve in his entire rugby union career what Cipriani achieved at the back end of Saturday’s game at Stade de France.
Never once has a single member of the England staff given the slightest hint that Burgess, who crossed codes from rugby league last autumn, would not be chosen in the 31-man squad for the forthcoming global tournament, hence the flurry of rumours – all of them denied from on high – about promises and guarantees, of commercial interests at work.
Farrell, hardly the world’s worst league player back in the day, is one of the newcomer’s staunchest supporters, and he dug himself in even deeper when the subject cropped up during a wide-ranging discussion on the state of play within the red-rose set-up.
“The first game” – and, so far, the only one, in the home match with France – “was not a shock to us,” he said, revelling in Burgess’s front-on tackles and general air of resilience. “We have to back our judgement. We can’t hide away from the fact of what we have seen in the 10 weeks we’ve been together – of what a certain individual will bring to the squad.”
Burgess was not involved in Paris – something of a mystery in itself, given that a union rookie needs all the game time he can get before Wales and Australia come knocking on Twickenham’s door with hostile intent – and it was probably just as well from his point of view.
Those who did start the match found themselves on the wrong end of a rare old rollicking at half-time, by which point the French were set fair for a much-needed victory that will work wonders for their confidence ahead of the serious business next month.
“I wasn’t the bad cop during the interval,” Farrell revealed, thereby giving credence to the suggestion that Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, took it upon himself to dispense some home truths.
“I was trying to get the players to understand what the solution was, to get them back on track. It was the first warm-up game for a lot of the players, but the worst part of it was that the errors were consistent. We have to deal with problems in the here and now, not wait 40 minutes until we can have a chat.”
Asked what might have been behind that failure, Farrell hinted at a lack of understanding as to what the problems were in the first place. Which was just a little chilling, given the proximity of a tournament of such obvious importance. “But I suppose that is what warm-up games are all about,” he mused. “Game time gives you the ability to understand.”
Among those who appeared to recognise what was going on and why – most notably the experienced Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter – was Cipriani, who scored a fine try at the last knockings and might have won the game for his country had there been another few minutes available to him.
“He’s been great,” Farrell said. “Danny had a gap to close and he’s closed it very well. He’s applied himself very professionally and if you speak to him, he would say he’s a better player for it.” A heartfelt comment, certainly, but one that also had a valedictory ring to it.
Meanwhile, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, is sweating on the fitness of the Cardiff Blues outside-half Gareth Anscombe, who suffered an ankle ligament injury in training and is struggling to make the cut for the World Cup. Gatland announces his squad on Monday and may be forced to choose both Rhys Priestland and Matthew Morgan as back-up to the senior No 10, Dan Biggar.Reuse content