Danny's lucky break: Cipriani returns for England

The Wasps fly-half lines up for England on Saturday just six months after suffering a horrific ankle injury. Chris Hewett reports on a remarkable recovery
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The Independent Online

On the basis that Danny Cipriani – aka Danny Celebriani, the Marquis of Mayfair – can hop faster than most outside-halves are able to run, there was always a faint chance that Martin Johnson and his coaching team would have him available for the first match of England's latest rip-it-up-and-start-again new era. Happily for Johnson, the most fêted rugby player in the country will take the field at Twickenham this weekend on two good legs rather than one. It is, according to the manager, a major slice of good fortune.

"He was moving pretty well when the squad first came together in August – he always said he'd be back earlier than everyone seemed to think – so we were able to factor him into our deliberations right from the beginning, even though I thought the best-case scenario would see him playing again in the middle of October rather than the start of it," Johnson reported yesterday when asked about Cipriani's phenomenally rapid recovery from the grisly ankle injury he suffered while playing for Wasps in the 21-10 Premiership semi-final victory against Bath last May. "It was when I saw him running up and down the steps of the West Stand at Twickenham that I wondered whether we might be able to get him involved in this game. He was going at a fair old pace that day."

Cipriani, who turned 21 last weekend, reckons he is quicker now than he was on that fateful day, when he was smashed to the ground by Olly Barkley and felt his ankle joint move in several different directions at once. Why does he believe something that appears to fly in the face of common sense, as well as medical logic? Because Margot Wells, one of the most successful sprint coaches in the land and one of his closest confidantes, has the statistics to prove it. And when the formidable Margot, with her Black-and-Decker voice, says something is so, it is wise to accept it as gospel.

"All being well, I'll do a short, sharp session with Margot on Friday," Cipriani announced after being confirmed in the pivot position for the meeting with the Pacific Islands. (Everything Cipriani says these days is an announcement. Bog-standard comment is for those lesser mortals who do not date television presenters or make front-page news by having their lights punched out by fellow England internationals during training sessions in downtown Acton). "In fact, she'll probably be the last person I speak to before the game, leaving aside the people in the squad. Along with the doctors and physiotherapists, who have been brilliant, she's one of the reasons I've been able to return so quickly.

"Did I honestly think I'd be back this early? When the injury happened, this first autumn international was the target I set myself. I didn't know whether it was a realistic target, but I was determined to push myself and it's worked out for me. The ankle is still stiff every morning, but once I get out of bed and take a few steps the stiffness eases. By the time I've gone through a proper warm-up ahead of training, everything's fine."

It is impossible to square Cipriani's extraordinarily high profile with the fact that his England career stretches no further than one starting appearance – admittedly a spellbinding one against Ireland in the final fixture of last season's Six Nations Championship – and a couple of runs off the bench against Wales and Italy, neither of which were remotely successful from the youngster's perspective. There again, Barack Obama doesn't have much of a record either. In all walks of life, there are those who have about them a star quality that defies definition and allows potential to speak louder than achievement. Cipriani is one of the chosen few. He may not have done it yet, but somehow, he has already made it.

The question on Saturday, and over the subsequent three fixtures against the southern hemisphere SANZAR nations who occupy the top three positions in the world rankings, is what he makes of his freshly-minted partnership with Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum-half who is similarly blessed in the pace and footwork departments. They may have the grand total of five caps between them, but they are the least of Johnson's concerns. England have had some effective half-back partnerships over the last two decades, but this one threatens to be the most potent since the Nigel Melville-Stuart Barnes pairing of the mid-1980s.

"I think it's important to remember that I'm not the only one who can play football in this team," Cipriani said. "Danny [Care] will have the licence to conjure his own magic, which is how it should be. Brian Smith [the new attack coach who won Test caps for both his native Australia and Ireland] is a fresh thinker who is full of that Aussie confidence and knows how to put it across. Danny is scoring regularly, as he keeps reminding me, and his pace over the first 10 metres is unbelievable. We'll be playing within a structure, but he has an individualistic streak and he'll back himself. Why not? It's why he's been picked."

While Cipriani and Care know each other from their age-group days – they played together in the Junior World Cup in Dubai two years ago – the outside-half knows rather less about two of the three new caps in the back division, the London Irish full-back Delon Armitage and the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye. Is he likely to lose sleep over this high degree of unfamiliarity? Cipriani is not one of life's bad sleepers.

"Actually, I'm delighted with the back line we've picked," he said. "Delon and Ugo both have pace to burn, Jamie Noon runs some of the best outside centre lines in the Premiership, and I know both Paul Sackey and Riki Flutey from Wasps. There's a lot of attacking threat there, so it will come down to execution. That's the vital thing. If we execute properly, we'll be pretty exciting to watch."

Danny Celebriani: Life and times of rugby's latest superstar

* Cipriani made two replacement appearances for England in the Six Nations before earning a first start against Ireland at Twickenham in March, scoring 18 points as the home side won 33-10. He was initially named in the team to face Scotland a week earlier, but was axed from the squad after being pictured in a night-club two days before the game.

* Cipriani suffered a fracture dislocation to his right ankle while playing against Bath in May, with initial diagnosis ruling him out for at least six months. His leg was trapped between Alex Crockett and Olly Barkley.

* In September he was pictured with model turned actress, Kelly Brook, 29. The whirlwind romance quickly turned serious, the pair introducing their parents to each other after a month. They are now reported to be looking at houses. Cipriani is set to follow in the steps of Brook after being named as the face – and body – of Ultimo lingerie. He will feature on billboards in a range of men's underwear.

* The 21-year-old was punched during a club training session last month by team-mate Josh Lewsey after a reported disagreement about missed tackles. Cipriani's lip and nose were cut in the scuffle in which onlookers describe Lewsey as leaving the fly-half 'out cold'.

* Cipriani made a surprisingly early return to action last month when he started against Bath just four and a half months after his ankle injury. He scored 11 points in a 23-27 defeat.