Danny Cipriani remains fourth of four in the England outside-half pecking order and his chances of playing even a modest part in the Six Nations opener against Wales a fortnight tomorrow depend on a sudden outbreak of plague among his rivals.
But the Wayward One is still counting his blessings: for the next three weeks at least, he will be where he feels he belongs – at the heart of the red-rose environment, strutting his stuff in front of the men who hold his Test future in their hands.
But for a quirk of the fixture list, those key individuals – the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, and his principal lieutenant, Andy Farrell – might have passed judgement in absentia. If Cipriani’s appearance in a 34-man training squad for the trip to Cardiff had something to do with his inventive attacking performances for Sale, it was driven more by the fact that the two men ahead of the field in the No 10 position – George Ford of Bath and Saracens’ Owen Farrell – will be involved in serious European Champions Cup business this coming Sunday. England need bodies on the practice paddock, hence the unusually large playmaking contingent.
“We want to start training on Tuesday, but even if they both come through injury free, neither George nor Owen will be able to participate until later in the week,” Lancaster explained yesterday. “Having said that, we base a lot of our decisions on what we see in training and we’ll keep an open mind, so Danny has a chance to put down a marker. In fairness to him, he hasn’t been far away for a while now.
“We felt Stephen Myler [the Northampton player] had the edge on him before the matches in November, but we wanted to create a situation where they could come into camp together. That’s what we’ve done here.”
One of Lancaster’s predecessors in the head coach’s job, Brian Ashton, could yesterday be heard celebrating the virtues of Cipriani, whom he coached at age-group level, capped as a 20-year-old during the 2008 Six Nations and still advises on an as-and-when basis. He praised the Londoner’s opportunistic brilliance, his way of sensing the subtlest dynamic shifts in a game of rugby and his ability to “add something different” to the red-rose mix.
After years of injury hassle, half-hearted foreign adventurism and failures of application, is this the moment he lives up to the billing? Ashton is not the only Englishman hoping it turns out to be so.
Lancaster indicated that this training group would probably stay together until the first home Six Nations game, against Italy on 14 February, and then be subject to review. Some of those named in an unusually strong, 24-man England Saxons party for the second-tier international against the Irish Wolfhounds in Cork in eight days’ time are likely to make a strong case for promotion, with the Harlequins wing Marland Yarde, the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson, the Bath hooker Rob Webber and the Gloucester flanker Matt Kvesic foremost among those with a case for feeling hard done by in missing out on places in the elite group.
Another member of the Saxons squad, the wildly overhyped cross-code recruit Sam Burgess, is not one of those pressing for early advancement, although he is likely to spend time in the Six Nations camp as part of his continuing education in the many and varied mysteries of the union game.
“It would be a big, big step for Sam to make a contribution during this tournament,” Lancaster remarked. Along with the vast majority of those named in yesterday’s parties, however, the Yorkshireman is likely to be among the multitudes called up for World Cup training in the summer.
One of the most interesting debates surrounded the senior front row. Such is England’s strength at the sharp end, two fast-improving international props – the Wasps loose-head specialist Matt Mullan and the Newcastle tight-head operator Kieran Brookes – lost their places in the elite group and were picked among the Saxons as a consolation prize.
This was because three Lions Test forwards have loomed back into view. Alex Corbisiero and Mako Vunipola will fight Joe Marler for his No 1 shirt, while Dan Cole is likely to pile a heap of pressure on David Wilson if he recovers from a minor foot injury in time to make the cut for the Wales game.
There will also be a fierce contest for the hooking role, with Tom Youngs of Leicester edging past Webber in the race to relieve Dylan Hartley of his starting position. Hartley, the Northampton captain, is not in Lancaster’s good books following his latest brush with the disciplinary class – he was sent off for flinging an arm at an opponent during a Premiership match before Christmas – and can expect another of the coach’s regular ear-bashings.
“I’ll speak to Dylan in camp,” Lancaster confirmed. “Whether it’s committing sin-bin offences or giving away dumb penalties, they compromise our chances of winning big matches. I’ll be making it very clear that our discipline has to be top notch.”
One player unfortunate to miss out on both squads, the 24-year-old Leicester back-rower Jamie Gibson, has decided to join Hartley and company at Northampton next term. It is a major signing for the reigning Premiership champions, who are losing the formidable American No 8 Samu Manoa to the free-spending Frenchmen of Toulon.
England Senior Training Squad:
Forwards: D Attwood (Bath), C Clark (Northampton), D Cole (Leicester), A Corbisiero (Northampton), N Easter (Harlequins), D Hartley (Northampton), J Haskell (Wasps), G Kitchener (Leicester), G Kruis (Saracens), J Marler (Harlequins), G Parling (Leicester), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola, M Vunipola (both Saracens), D Wilson (Bath), T Wood (Northampton), T Youngs (Leicester).
Backs: B Barritt (Saracens), M Brown (Harlequins), L Burrell (Northampton), D Care (Harlequins), D Cipriani (Sale), K Eastmond (Bath), O Farrell (Saracens), G Ford (Bath), A Goode (Saracens), J Joseph (Bath), J May (Gloucester,), S Myler (Northampton), J Nowell (Exeter), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), A Watson (Bath), R Wigglesworth (Saracens), B Youngs (Leicester).
England Saxons squad:
Forwards: K Brookes (Newcastle), T Croft (Leicester), C Day (Northampton), L Cowan-Dickie, D Ewers (both Exeter), M Garvey (Bath), R Harrison (Sale), M Itoje (Saracens), M Kvesic (Gloucester), M Mullan (Wasps), H Thomas (Bath), T Waldrom (Exeter), A Waller (Northampton), R Webber (Bath).
Backs: C Ashton (Saracens), S Burgess (Bath), E Daly (Wasps), O Devoto (Bath), L Dickson (Northampton, capt), J Simpson (Wasps), H Slade (Exeter), M Yarde (Harlequins), C Wade (Wasps).Reuse content