England may not have wanted a piece of Danny Cipriani during the months leading into the World Cup, but now the Martin Johnson regime has passed into history, Cipriani very definitely wants a piece of England. "I don't want any more ifs, buts or maybes," he said yesterday during preparations for a return to Twickenham with the Barbarians this weekend. "I don't want to give people any more reasons not to pick me." That should be music to English ears, of the most celestial kind.
The prodigal son of the red-rose game has not played for his country for three long years – partly as a result of his own behavioural frailties and fragilities, partly as a result of Johnson's failure to manage the most gifted attacking outside-half to emerge in England since Stuart Barnes announced himself to the international game in the mid-1980s. Frustrated and depressed by the way his career was unfolding, Cipriani decided on a spell of exile and moved to the Melbourne Rebels, the newly-formed Australian Super 15 franchise, on a two-year contract.
That contract has another southern hemisphere season to run, but Cipriani assured his audience that if England were interested in his services for the 2012 Six Nations Championship, which begins in February, he would be available. "I watched the recent World Cup as a fan, and seeing England play always makes me want to be out there playing myself," he said. "I believe I'm in a good place to challenge for an international place now. I've played Premiership rugby and I've played in the Heineken Cup, but I think the Super 15 is probably the best competition in the world. It's the way rugby is going and it's good for me to be a part of it."
By way of providing evidence for that assertion, Cipriani offered Wales as an example. "Look at the way they played at the World Cup: their rugby was very open and they went a long way in the tournament," he said. "New Zealand were so strong, so determined, but it was Wales who produced some of the best rugby. There are times when you have to kick the ball off the pitch and go for territory – the game is all about decision-making – but they were always looking to do something. I thought they were fantastic."
This weekend's invitational business – the Baa-Baas play Australia on Saturday – gives the 24-year-old a priceless opportunity to learn a new trick or two from Graham Henry, whose status as one of the world's great coaches was confirmed last month when he guided the All Blacks to a first world title in almost a quarter of a century. Steve Hansen, the assistant coach, is also involved in preparing the most celebrated "scratch team" in the sport, while a number of Webb Ellis Trophy-winning players, including the wing Richard Kahui and the hooker Keven Mealamu, will feature in the starting line-up.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," Cipriani said. "I know there are areas of my game that need improving and that's what I'm focusing on now. I've been working really hard with the Rebels and to spend a few days being coached by Graham and Steve can only help. I've felt for the last 12 months that things have been passing me by on the England front and I don't want to feel that any more. I want to play at the World Cup in 2015 and I don't intend to let anything get in my way. In the past, some people have said 'pick him' while others have said 'don't pick him because of x, y and z.' I know now that I have to look at x, y and z and start fronting up in those areas. It's about rounding my game to the degree that people feel they have to pick me."
Meanwhile, Henry joined the growing list of possible candidates distancing themselves from the vacant England coaching job. "It's not a reality," he pronounced, bluntly, in an interview with the BBC. The New Zealander has done his share of time in Europe, having worked with Wales and the British and Irish Lions, and apparently has no desire to immerse himself in the basket-case world of Twickenham at the relatively advanced age of 65. He may, however, form a loose association with a leading European club. "Over the next six months, I'll come to some conclusions," he said.
If the Rugby Football Union is in a healthy financial position – the annual accounts show a record profit of £8.7m for 2010-11 – the eternal wrangling in the committee room and the sorry end to Johnson's ill-conceived tenure as red-rose manager leaves them in a bad place overall. In a little over a month, someone must pick a new 32-man Test squad, and if Johnson's replacement is not signed, sealed and delivered over the next fortnight, that someone will be Stuart Lancaster, who coaches the second-string Saxons team, with input from Rob Andrew, the much-criticised director of elite rugby.
By contrast, Wales continue merrily along. Yesterday, the assistant coach Rob Howley re-committed himself to Warren Gatland's back-room team by agreeing a five-year contract extension to take him well past the next global gathering in England.