Lancaster leaves door open for Cipriani return
Caretaker coach says wayward star will have to buy into England's new culture or step aside
Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker England coach who finds himself within a few well-chosen words of securing the job on a full-time basis, knows Danny Cipriani of old. Quite what he makes of the new version rather depends on the prodigal fly-half behaving himself on his return to Premiership activity after two seasons in Australia. Cipriani will end his Super 15 duty with the Melbourne Rebels in July and head for Sale in time for the start of the European season.
"Danny will have to do what everyone else has to do," Lancaster (left) said. "He'll have to perform well for his club and try to get into the senior squad. If he does that, it will be about buying into the culture. If he doesn't buy into it, there are plenty of others on the list."
Sale are extremely excited and rightly so. Cipriani has been known to make life difficult for his coaches by being an awkward cuss – the former England coach Brian Ashton, something of a philosopher king to the 24-year-old Londoner, disciplined him more than once – but he is undeniably among the most gifted attacking No 10s in the sport.
"People talk about him being uncontrollable but that's nonsense," said Steve Diamond, the head cook and bottlewasher at the Stockport-based club. "He's a young lad who has gone on some nights out, but he's not a drinker – he's just in that celebrity world, which is what modern sport is all about. If that needs managing, I don't mind being his partner."
Now, there's a thought.
One of the many interesting aspects of Lancaster's post-Six Nations "wash-up" at Twickenham yesterday was his inclusion of Cipriani's name on a lengthy list of players who might develop sufficiently to challenge for a place at the home World Cup in 2015. Among the other fly-halves were George Ford of Leicester, officially considered to be the game's best age-group No 10, and Bath's Tom Heathcote, although peculiarly, there was no mention of Freddie Burns, whose performances for Gloucester this season have frequently been exceptional.
Lancaster also listed half a dozen loosehead props, a very strong red-rose position, and a similar number of uncapped wings, all of whom he suspects might have what it takes. This forward-looking element will form part of his imminent presentation to the Rugby Football Union panel charged with identifying the best candidate to succeed Martin Johnson: a presentation based in no small part on the idea that the excellent working relationship he established with his coaching colleagues Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell over the course of the Six Nations has more to offer in terms of value and should be supported to the hilt.
"When I was given the interim role, it was about building foundations," said the man who, at the start of his working life, had the brass-necked confidence to apply for a head of department's role at a school in Morecambe before he had qualified as a teacher. "Those foundations have been built and however things unfold now, England are in a good place. Without pre-judging the interview process, I can say I'll be making my thoughts clear to the panel about who the coaching team should be. There is no doubt about it: the chemistry between myself, Andy and Graham has been fantastic. My mindset originally was to keep the coaching team tight, and I think we've proved that it works."
With Farrell back in his regular job with Saracens, the unit that took England to an unexpected second place in the Six Nations was a third light yesterday. However, Rowntree's support for Lancaster was so heartfelt and so complete, there would have been no earthly point in anyone adding to it.
"A lot has been said about the environment created on the back of the culture established by Stuart," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's the best I've known, either as a player or a coach – even better than the Lions in South Africa in 2009, because England were in such a low place, a bad place, beforehand. Stuart has dragged us out of the gutter recently. We'd failed at the World Cup. That whole business with the leaked reports was messy. That was only a matter of weeks ago, yet we've travelled light years.
"I'll give you a good example of the spirit in the team. On Saturday, after beating Ireland and attending the post-match dinner, we went back to the hotel and had a cracking night. But it was tinged with sadness, real sadness, because we all felt an emotional journey was coming to an end. I'd never experienced that before: previously, I'd always been ready for home.
"My overriding feeling is one of pride, but there is a load more to come from this group of players and I'm dying to work with them again. I don't want anything to change. I understand Andy's position with Saracens and I admire his loyalty to the club, but I'd love everything to remain as it is. Can he be persuaded to stick with England? We'll have to wait and see. It's a few steps down the line, isn't it? We have a big step to get out of the way first."
At which point he glanced sideways at Lancaster before muttering: "No pressure."
Northampton, who will lose their first-choice No 8, Roger Wilson, to Ulster next season, have signed the highly-regarded Gerrit-Jan van Velze, 24, from the Pretoria-based Blue Bulls. A former captain of his country's schools team and a nominee for the International Rugby Board's Under-19 player of the year in 2007, he will move to Franklin's Gardens in the summer.
Topsy-turvy time down under
Melbourne Rebels have made a poor start to this season, the club have lost three out of three and are only a point off the foot of the league. Cipriani played 11 games in his debut campaign last year as the club finished bottom of Super 15. He scored 108 points, making him the club's leading scorer, and his sole try was a memorable effort last March. He made a poor start to his career Down Under, his off-field behaviour seeing his playing opportunities limited. He was fined and banned after being accused of stealing a bottle of vodka from a Melbourne bar.
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