'I deserve the axe,' admits Cipriani

Dropped fly-half admits Springbok performance was not good enough
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The Independent Online

There are a number of things about Danny Cipriani – the celebrity profile, the ever-growing portfolio of lucrative advertising deals – that have yet to be justified by his achievements on the rugby field, but he has lost neither his sense of humility nor his grip on reality. Not yet, at any rate. Asked yesterday for his reaction to being dropped to the England replacements' bench for this weekend's meeting with the All Blacks at Twickenham, he responded: "If I'd been in management's position, I'd have done the same. I didn't make it easy for them to pick me again."

Martin Johnson, the individual who did the dropping, made every effort to let his victim down gently, as managers always do when speaking in public, rather than behind closed doors. "Danny is still an important part of the side – the days of people sitting on the bench and not being involved are over," Johnson said, avoiding any specific mention of Cipriani's indecisive, error-ridden display in the record defeat by South Africa four days ago. "The bench guys tend to be on the field at the end of a game, which is the only time the scoreboard really matters. He wanted to start, just as everyone wanted to start. On this occasion, his role is different."

Johnson's principal sidekick, the attack coach Brian Smith, predicted great things for the 21-year-old Wasps outside-half this weekend, despite the passing of the No 10 shirt to Toby Flood. "The funny thing with sport and life is that he'll probably come on and make some massive impact, like dropping the winning goal." To which Cipriani responded: "I'd prefer to score the winning try." He may have forfeited his place, but his confidence levels remain stratospheric.

Mind you, he also said the following in respect of being photographed on the town with his girlfriend, the actress Kelly Brook, after Saturday's pummelling: "It's an easy stick to beat me with, but there is no celebrity lifestyle." Coming from a sportsman who, as the former Springbok coach Jake White remarked last week, generates as much publicity for himself with his social appearances in the West End of London as he does with his business ones on the rectangular mudheaps of the English shires, this was almost as surprising as Johnson's other changes to the red-rose line-up, both of which were significantly more jaw-dropping than Cipriani's demise.

Tom Palmer, injured during the first half of the Springbok debacle, was always likely to miss out, but the recalling of the inexperienced line-out specialist Nick Kennedy ahead of a "been there and done it" character such as Simon Shaw was not expected. As for the decision to give the Cipriani treatment to Tom Rees, outstanding in adversity at open-side flanker last weekend... well, this was close to inexplicable. Michael Lipman, the Bath captain, has been on a hot streak all season, but the breakaway position was surely the last issue that needed addressing.

The manager's attempt at clarification did not make a great deal of sense. "Tom had his best game of the series last Saturday," Johnson acknowledged. "He played very, very well. He's not injured; in fact, he's ready to go. But we wanted to give Michael a start at some point during the autumn, so we're putting Tom on the bench." If Rees is a little confused he has plenty of company, for the 82,000 Twickenhamites who witnessed and admired his lone stand against the Boks must feel equally befuddled. So much for form players holding their places.

In trying to make the best of a bad job, Johnson was suitably beetle-browed. "This is a tough week," he admitted, "but it's not about wallowing in self-pity. We didn't want to lose 42-6 against South Africa, but it happened and we have to stand up to it. We've been too easy to score against over the last couple of matches, but we are where we are with this team."

For his part, Smith was keen to strike as many optimistic notes as possible. "There were 30 minutes between the Springboks' second and third tries on Saturday, and twice in that spell, we set up camp close to their line and went through 15 or more phases," he pointed out. "Had we scored then, we'd have been back to within a score and it would have been a different ballgame. We have to work our tails off to find the attacking edge we need.

"That's what the All Blacks do. There's no magical mystery to them, no great secret: they still put their trousers on one leg at a time, just like us. It takes a lot of hard yakka to be as good as they are, but if someone says we have no chance against them, that's fine by me. It fuels what we're trying to do. We know we're not hopeless. We're just a new group of people, building together, who happen to be playing southern hemisphere teams at the height of their powers."

Even though he will be matched against Dan Carter, arguably the world's best rugby player, Flood is relishing the opportunity in what will be only his fourth Test start in the playmaking role.

"I hope to make a mark," he said. "I've been waiting with bated breath to get a chance. It's difficult when you're waiting for an opportunity but I was happy the way I was playing at Leicester. You can only work as hard as you can. All you can do is give your very best. That is the main thing. I would have been disappointed not to be involved in the game."

Flood's career began at Newcastle in the shadow of Jonny Wilkinson but Saturday will be his 22nd cap and he has recent experience of playing fly-half against the All Blacks and Carter, having started the summer Test in Christchurch which New Zealand won 44-12 and in which Carter scored 22 points.

Flood, whose tour was disrupted by an injured shoulder, said: "The physicality of the All Blacks and the pace with which they played really opened our eyes. They were very clinical. But it is all about us, our patterns and how we want to play the game. It's an exciting challenge."

Flood is under no illusions about the pressure he will be under, having seen Cipriani struggle to cope against Australia and South Africa. "In any game in any sport there are decision makers and the onus falls on them. The pitcher in baseball, the quarterback in American Football. If you make a couple of errors then people will make a point of it. The squad is very upset about what happened [against South Africa]. We were destroyed after the game to have lost by so much and to have let each other and the fans down."

New Zealand, one win away from a second Grand Slam in three years (having spent 73 years chasing their first, which eventually arrived in 1978), have made only a single change to the side that saw off Wales in Cardiff last weekend. Conrad Smith replaces Richard Kahui at outside centre, and they will be stronger, not weaker, for his presence.

No Danny Joy: Cipriani's ups and downs

1997 Joined Rosslyn Park.

2003 Signed for Wasps.

December 2004 Made debut in Powergen Cup, becoming youngest player in English senior rugby.

November 2006 Premiership debut against Bath, scoring a try.

February 2008 Made England debut as replacement against Wales.

March First start v Ireland. Was axed from line-up v Scotland a week earlier after being pictured in a nightclub.

May Suffered dislocation to right ankle v Bath, ruled out for six months.

October Makes early return to action; Knocked out by Josh Lewsey.

November Returns to England team for autumn internationals; Dropped.

England v New Zealand: Twickenham teams

England

15 D Armitage (L Irish)

14 P Sackey (Wasps)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 R Flutey (Wasps)

11 U Monye (Har'quins)

10 T Flood (Leicester)

9 D Care (Har'quins)

1 T Payne (Wasps)

2 L Mears (Bath)

3 P Vickery (Wasps)

4 S Borthwick (Saracens, capt)

5 N Kennedy (L Irish)

6 J Haskell (Wasps)

7 M Lipman (Bath)

8 N Easter (Har'quins)

Replacements: D Hartley (Nor'ton), M Stevens (Bath), T Croft (Lei), T Rees (Wasps), H Ellis (Lei), D Cipriani (Wasps), D Hipkiss (Lei)

New Zealand

15 M Muliaina (Waik)

14 J Rokocoko (Auck)

13 C Smith (Well'ton)

12 M Nonu (Well'ton)

11 S Sivivatu (Waikato)

10 D Carter (Cant'bry)

9 J Cowan (Southland)

1 T Woodcock (N Har)

2 K Mealamu (Auck)

3 N Tialata (Well'ton)

4 B Thorn (Tasman)

5 A Williams (Tasman)

6 J Kaino (Auckland)

7 R McCaw (C'bry, capt)

8 R So'oialo (Well'ton)

Replacements: H Elliott (Hawke's Bay), J Afoa (Auck), A Boric (N Har), K Read (Cant), P Weepu (Well), S Donald (Waik), I Toeava (Auck)

Referee: A Rolland (Ireland)

Venue: Twickenham

Kick-off: 2.30pm. TV: Sky Sports 2

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