James Lawton: Cipriani may be judged guilty of being young and naïve but the folly is Ashton's

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The Independent Online

England's rugby union coach, Brian Ashton, may have justifications for his public humiliation of the boy wonder, Danny Cipriani, running deeper than we are being told. For his own reputation, rather than that of the victim of what at first sight seems to be an astonishingly draconian reaction to something that appears no worse than a lapse of judgement of a kind not unknown in 20-year-olds, we must hope so.

Pulling Cipriani out of the Calcutta Cup because he made a brief and, we are told emphatically, abstemious visit to a London nightspot to hand over some tickets to friends, has been described by the player's mentors at Wasps, the not undemanding and still less naïve Ian McGeechan and Shaun Edwards, as an over-reaction. It is also, if we indeed do have all the facts on the table, as perverse as it is heavy-handed.

Certainly, if Ashton ever reflects on his treatment of the most exciting English rugby player in decades he might profitably recall the way another head coach of another national team, the World Cup-winning Sir Alf Ramsey, dealt with a similar disciplinary dilemma.

Ramsey was angered that a number of his players broke curfew – one which unlike, apparently, Ashton's, had been spelt out in words of few syllables – on the eve of departure for a foreign tour. From the outset Ramsey, rather like Fabio Capello all these years later, had laid down his determination that the players would follow his rules, and here was the first test of his resolve.

When the culprits, who included the young captain, Bobby Moore, and Bobby Charlton, returned to their rooms in the London hotel they were shocked to find their passports, which they had earlier handed to Ramsey's assistant, Harold Shepherdson, had been placed on their pillows.

After a mostly sleepless night, the players were gathered together by their manager and told they were to be forgiven for a transgression that could not be repeated. If it was, their England careers would be stone dead as long as he was in charge. Moore and Charlton, Ramsey already knew well enough, were the foundation stones of a campaign which would eventually beat the world, but he was about the business of making a team.

It would be one which had to be based on proper discipline on and off the field, and not a set of individuals with exaggerated ideas about their own importance – and freedom to act as they pleased.

Ashton might well want to make the same point to the hugely lauded Cipriani. But why bring a sledgehammer to a problem Ramsey handled with such explicit but ultimately pragmatic menace – and why risk, unnecessarily, a shattering of the self-confidence which has been so intrinsic to the young's man thrilling arrival on the rugby scene.

Another World Cup winner, Matt Dawson, is outraged by the decision. He told a national radio audience that he was almost speechless with indignation and the sense of the loss that the dawn of Cipriani's international career had been not only postponed but besmirched.

Lawrence Dallaglio, Cipriani's club captain at Wasps and a man who at a far more mature age lost the England captaincy because of indiscretions that far exceeded that which has now so exercised Ashton, is similarly indignant.

Ashton's intolerance is certainly in marked contrast to his indulgence of Olly Barkley, who appeared in the last World Cup while operating under the cloud of being charged with assault in an incident in which the victim suffered a broken jaw. While Barkley insists on his innocence, it might be noted that the affray in which Barkley was involved occurred much deeper into the small hours than when Cipriani claims to have handed the tickets over to his friends and, no doubt, received their encouragement for a starting debut which had caught the imagination of every English rugby fan.

It doesn't help that it is Iain Balshaw, who played rather haplessly in Paris two weeks ago, who reclaims a place that he seemed to have yielded to a young player who has created such high expectation.

Of course no talent, not even of the order George Best, over-rides the need for team discipline, for rules that should dictate the behaviour of every member. It was an issue that caused the great Sir Matt Busby more agonies than any football matter outside of the tragedies of Munich, and there were many who said that he gave the Irish genius too much leeway. However, George did have a tendency to stay up all night and then report to training, a habit which prompted his team-mate Charlton to speculate that one day his freakish resilience might earn parts of his body a place in a bottle at a laboratory of Manchester University.

Cipriani, we are told, enjoys a lively and varied social life, but he is no Best. He drinks sparingly and brings an astonishing relish to his rugby. He is also, as we have already noted, 20 years old - a time when life should be filled with possibilities rather than dread.

Maybe the truth is that Ashton panicked when he was told of the photograph that appeared in Thursday's London Evening Standard. Perhaps he thought he had to make a stand which would establish, once and for all, his authority, which is still, let's be honest, still somewhat compromised by the withering criticism it received in the autobiographies of such major figures as Dallaglio and Mike Catt.

If this is so, Ashton has possibily made a critical mistake. The uncomfortable sense is that Cipriani is not so much a miscreant as a victim – and not just of the follies that afflict the young.

The Iceman cometh, revived by heat of Festival battle

Tony McCoy's ice-bound recovery regime is an extraordinary testament to the will of one of the greatest practioners of arguably the toughest day-in, day-out trade in sport.

Yet his likely reappearance at Cheltenham so soon after an injury which caused the initial worry that he might have difficulty in walking, let alone riding again, with an intensity of ambition which some say has not been seen the emergence of Lester Piggott, seems almost routine.

Certainly, it is no more than another confirmation of an impression gained in this quarter when he granted an interview set for midway through an afternoon's racing at Ludlow a decade or so ago. Not fulfilling this promise seemed the least of his problems when he was thrown beneath a pursuing pack and was, after much consultation, carried away on a stretcher. It is almost gratuitous to report that not only did he present himself for the interview, he also rode a winner in the last.

On a yellowing page, his words ring as true now as they did that distant day. "You don't come into this business if you worry about the odd broken bone," he said. "I've never found anything so satisfying as bringing home a winner and I don't expect that to ever change."

If there is any rival to the cheer that will greet Kauto Star in a few days' time, it will be the one that welcomes the man from Antrim who has fought so gloriously to come in from the cold.

Mourinho backfires in parking tanks on Wenger's lawn

Those in the media who so often let Jose Mourinho write his own often less than truthful script – and thus allowed him to do their jobs – were no doubt drooling when he emerged from the woodwork this week to take still another sideswipe at Arsène Wenger.

They would have done better to have listened more carefully to the subtext of Wenger's guarded hopes for the masterpiece his team produced at San Siro.

Mourinho's sneering statement that it is years since the Arsenal manager has won a trophy, and Wenger's assertion yesterday that sometimes winning just isn't enough, had to put some in mind of the riposte of Pope Pius Xll when he was asked by Josef Stalin, through diplomatic channels, how many armoured divisions were at the disposal of the Vatican. "Tell my son, Josef," said the Pope, "my divisions are in heaven."

So are many of Arsenal's best performances under Wenger, and surely the one orchestrated by the latest of his protégés, Cesc Fabregas at San Siro. Of course Mourinho won trophies, but heavenly performances? Let us count the number. For this purpose one hand is, of course, more than enough.

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