It’s six years since a 20-year-old Danny Cipriani took the England No 10 shirt from a certain Jonny Wilkinson and won the man of the match award on his debut against Ireland. But the task that faces him now – to win that shirt back again in time for next year’s World Cup – is tougher still.
On Monday, England coach Stuart Lancaster names his squad for the forthcoming autumn internationals. Ahead of Cipriani in the pecking order are Owen Farrell certainly, George Ford probably and Stephen Myler possibly. Cipriani earned a long-awaited recall over the summer, and played, albeit briefly, in two Tests against New Zealand. With the new season still young, and his Sale side scoring a lot of tries but playing erratically, does he think he has done enough to make the squad?
“Everyone’s got their role to play in it,” he says, waiting to film his appearance on the Clare Balding Show. Even if his international career has not been all it seemed it might be six years ago, public interest in him has not waned. “Everyone’s got to be putting their hand up and playing well,” he says. “I feel like I’ve added a bit with my attack, I’m getting the back line going at Sale. We’ve scored 19 tries, that puts us right there at the top.”
But he acknowledges it will be difficult. “In 2008 I was playing for Wasps, we were winning every week and on our way to winning the Heineken Cup. That makes it a lot easier to get selected. Now the competition for places is really hotting up, and not just in the fly-half position either.”
Earlier this week, Sir Clive Woodward said Cipriani would be his first choice at fly-half, moving Farrell to inside-centre. For his part, Cipriani says that playing at a less-dominant club than Wasps were then is improving his game
“I have learned different skills here, I have added different things to my repertoire. I am finding out how deep my game management goes. I know what my habits are like, what my daily training habits are like. I aim to be a better player right up until I’m 35 years old. There are always things you can learn.”
The layman’s view of Cipriani is that he should have achieved more over the last six years. That be got picked for England as a 20 year old, started going out with Kelly Brook, became more interested in fame than he did in playing rugby and took his foot off the gas. The truth, as always, is more layered.
It was an ankle injury, rather than the tabloid cameras that forced him from the England team, and he returned to a new national management set-up under Martin Johnson, who had different ideas.
“Circumstances come into play, don’t they?” he suggests. “The injury stopped me going on tour to New Zealand as No 1. I’ve got ultimate respect for Martin Johnson but he was looking at a different route. So I went to Australia to Super Rugby to improve on my game. My personal life wasn’t an issue. It was highlighted by the press but it wasn’t fame that affected me. It was being young and not taking control of your day-to-day training.
“I’m not saying I didn’t make any mistakes. It’s just my mistakes were a lot more public. I don’t know many 21-year-olds who ever get the world suddenly at their feet and are capable of analysing it, reflecting on it and always making the right decisions.
“Getting back in the England squad was a massive plus for me. Then playing for England against New Zealand, I felt comfortable out there, against the All Blacks.”
The road ahead now, for all rugby players not assured of their place at next year’s World Cup, is a beguiling one. There are these autumn internationals and another Six Nations tournament between now and next October. There will be more than one opportunity for a player to force himself into the squad.
“You can’t think about the competition and what they offer. You need to keep trying to be the best at the type of player that you are.
“My attacking play is part of my point of difference. But I’ve strengthened my defence, and my kicking too. It’s not about trying to be the type of player that will get you picked. You have to try and become the type of player you need to be to win every single match.”
Cipriani was watching the Rugby League Grand Final on Saturday, when Wigan’s Ben Flower punched St Helens’s Lance Hohaia on the nose as he lay on the floor. It was shocking, he says, but in its way understandable.
“It’s a physical game. You have to physically be up for it. You’ve had big team talks from your coach. Sometimes these things happen. It is a ferocious environment, rugby. It’s Gladiator-esque.
“It was pretty shocking, the second punch. Even if you are provoked, you want to try and think you can move away from it. But in the heat of the battle, your adrenaline’s going, it’s the final, you don’t want to take a step back.
“He might not have realised he was already unconscious [when he aimed the second punch]. But they have dealt with it as a league committee, and his coach has stood by him. Everyone involved understands.”
As for rugby union, with or without Cipriani England’s target at next summer’s tournament is obvious.
“Every English rugby player when they step on the field, they want to win. We definitely have the ability, the squad balance, the make-up of it. We have world-class players throughout.
“The coaching staff have it spot on, they’re very diligent with their analysis. I learnt an awful lot working with them over the summer, and I want to be part of it.”
For a few more days at least – and possibly more – he and the rest of us must wait and see.
Danny Cipriani was speaking ahead of his appearance on 'The Clare Balding Show' which airs on Thursday night at 10:15pm on BT Sport 1Reuse content