Danny Cipriani, who went from the next big thing to the current big thing the moment Martin Johnson picked him for England's first international of the autumn series, finds himself just 80 minutes away from being the last big thing, and as the 80 minutes concerned belong to someone else – Toby Flood, to be precise – he is about as helpless as it is possible for a player of his God-given gifts to be. Possession being nine-tenths of every law under the sun, the "he'll be back" predictions will come to pass only if the incumbent permits it.
Even if Flood gets it wrong up against the All Blacks at Twickenham this afternoon, there is no guarantee Cipriani will be granted another starting opportunity when the Six Nations circus rolls into the great rugby capitals of Europe early next year. Johnson has been heard lamenting the fact that "there is no 50-cap cavalry coming over the hill" to rescue his side today, and assuming the stricken Jonny Wilkinson does not find it within himself to do a Cipriani and return from serious injury weeks and months sooner than the medical profession anticipates, that will still be the case in February.
Selection then will rest purely on club form, and just at the moment, it is far easier for Flood to look good at title-chasing Leicester than it is for his rival to trip the light fantastic at bargain-basement Wasps.
All of which is hard on the Boy Wonder. Not as hard as the knuckle sandwich he received from Josh Lewsey during a training session in rough-and-ready Acton last month (how long ago that ridiculously sensationalised incident now seems), but hard nevertheless. He has not helped himself, admittedly. As Sean Fitzpatrick, the wonderful All Black hooker who rubbed shoulders with some swanky talents in his time, remarked rather pointedly this week: "He has that twinkle in his eye, like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, and you need a degree of arrogance to be as successful as those guys – as long as it's left on the field." There has been too much from "Celebriani" off the field, and it is hurting him.
Yet it might also be argued that Johnson summoned him too soon. When Brian Ashton gave the Londoner his first start against Ireland last March – having disciplined him the previous week for West Ending it less than 48 hours before the Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield – he caught the moment perfectly. Cipriani was playing brilliantly for his club, while Wilkinson's authority was seeping away like water through an ancient drainage pipe. This time round, he had played only four matches since returning from an ankle dislocation so grisly that the big tough rugger-buggers who witnessed it felt sick to the pits of their stomachs.
When Brian Smith, the England attack coach, reminded his audience on Tuesday that it was "not long since Danny's leg was facing the wrong way", he was attempting to shield him from the most toxic of the fall-out from of his all-too-public demotion. In doing so, he implicitly acknowledged that his selection had been premature. Cipriani himself pointed to the fact that last weekend's match against the Springboks was only his seventh since the fracture dislocation trauma of six months ago. Was he too suggesting that his return had been mishandled?
Heaven knows, he is not the first England outside-half to shower gifts on the opposition, although the serial nature of his largesse on the chargedown front suggests his problem is more profound than a straightforward run of bad luck. Wilkinson cost the British and Irish Lions a Test series in Australia by throwing a pass straight to the Wallaby wing Joe Roff, and when Flood presented the Argentines with an interception try at Twickenham in 2006, he effectively propelled the coach who had brought him into international rugby, Andy Robinson, into P45 territory.
But neither Flood nor Wilkinson are cut from the same cloth as their rival: not in terms of rugby style or strategy, and certainly not temperamentally. Compared with Cipriani, they are outside-halves of the slow-burning variety who, in their different ways, prize the quiet subtleties of game management above the blinding pyrotechnics of individual razzle-dazzle. Wilkinson is past his best, whatever his guide and philosopher king, the former Newcastle conditioning specialist Steve Black, may say to the contrary, but his rich experience cannot be bought. Flood does not offer the same know-how, but he served an apprenticeship under Wilkinson and has something of the older man's mental resilience about him.
"People have different personalities," Flood said this week, when asked whether Wilkinson's unsought command of the sporting headlines, followed by Cipriani's more calculated hogging of them, had persuaded him that in the contest for the No 10 shirt, he was up against forces greater than mere form. "I don't think I'm affected by those differences one way or the other. Coming into this series I was content with the way I'd been playing for Leicester, but the selectors went for Danny. I was disappointed, of course: as in any walk of life, it's upsetting when you don't get the job you're after. I have my chance now, though, and I want to make a mark. The waiting has been difficult. Time will tell whether I can take advantage of this latest situation."
Flood has been no more than an occasional outside-half at international level. His first two England starts were in the pivot position and his performance in the victory over France at Twickenham in the spring of last year – the one time during Ashton's brief tenure as head coach that the national team played what might be termed Ashton rugby – was at the very heart of matters. Yet as the World Cup approached, Wilkinson reclaimed the role; indeed, Flood did not even make the squad for the global gathering across the Channel, inexplicably missing out to Andy Farrell.
Most of his Test experience has been at inside centre. There is no great downside to this; the likes of Carter and Matt Giteau learned how to perform the No 10 role by looking and learning from the classic understudy's position of No 12. It is, however, illustrative of the fact that successive England coaching teams have not known quite what to do with him.
Smith, an enthusiastic supporter of the Anglicised New Zealander Riki Flutey in the No 12 position, saw Flood as the perfect bench bunny, covering a range of positions behind the scrum. Yet many Premiership coaches felt Flood had been playing better for Leicester than Cipriani had for Wasps during the run-in to these autumn internationals and were surprised by his omission from the starting line-up.
Now, all bets are off. Cipriani's failures of game management against Australia and South Africa, not to mention his loose goal-kicking and apparent inability to string two games together without offering the opposition a chargedown try, have given Flood a fresh opportunity and fresh hope. The other brat-pack No 10s playing in the Premiership – Shane Geraghty, the London Irish midfielder, and Ryan Lamb of Gloucester – are also alert to the latest developments. There is never a good time to have a bad game at Test level, but it is just possible that Cipriani has picked a really rotten moment to muck things up.
Being the mature, barely flappable sort he is, Flood is acutely aware that what befell his rival last weekend could undermine his own efforts this afternoon. "In any game, in any sport, there are decision-makers – the pitcher in baseball, the quarterback in American football – and for them, criticism is part and parcel of what they do," he said. "I'll be playing in a tough position in this game: tough because the speed at which you have to work is so quick, because there are so many things going through your head. And these fixtures against the big southern hemisphere teams are more testing than any others, because they're the best around. The International Rugby Board rankings don't lie. New Zealand, South Africa, Australia are one, two and three.
"This game against the All Blacks is obviously a challenge, especially for a team like England, where we're looking at potential success down the line. What we can't do is use potential as an excuse for defeat. We can't lose and lose and lose and say 'It's OK, everyone, we're still building'. It's international rugby we're talking about here. It always has to be about winning."
No doubt Cipriani would have said something similar, given the chance, but just for once, he is not the one doing the talking. In the mid-1980s, England had a choice at No 10 between Stuart Barnes, the sublimely gifted maverick with a gambler's instinct, and Rob Andrew, whose rugby was not quite as... box-office, shall we say. Barnes had legions of followers who felt he could do no wrong; Andrew had rather fewer, less vocal supporters. Crucially, Andrew's were the ones who picked the team.
The No 10 brat pack
As well as Danny Cipriani and Toby Flood, two other young guns are seeking to make the fly-half position their own in the England side:
Highly rated as a playmaker with the full range of skills. The 22-year-old London Irish man made his full international debut in the Six Nations win over France last year.
A goal-kicking maestro in the making for Gloucester, street-smart and cunning.Reuse content