We have a remarkable habit in this country, whether we like it or not, for building up young rugby players before they are quite in a position to live up to their assumed hype. As a rookie dipping his chubby toe into the rough and unforgiving waters of rugby writing, I am as guilty as the next key-tapper. Only last week I was calling Owen Farrell's performance "stunning"; I appear to have been caught up in it all.
Here I go doing it again, but Farrell looks to have the sort of personality conducive to staying in the squad for a long time. I hope I am right. But for every Jonny Wilksinson – a child star who grew up and took over the world – there is a Danny Cipriani. Ask any English rugby fan or player to name the player who failed most dismally to become what he might have been and, more often than not, this is the name you will hear.
An enigma in the truest sense, Cipriani managed to tear apart world-class players, making them look like schoolboys. Then he would allow those same players to run straight through him, as though the tackling side of the game was optional, sometimes reacting with the raised-arms-and-abusive-blame technique favoured by every Premier League goalkeeper who has ever had to make a save.
Cipriani's general flakiness frustrated his supporters, but his commitment to the C-list limelight frustrated his coaches more. Everyone has different views on this stuff, and that's fine. Mine has always been that if a bloke stands shoulder to shoulder with you on a Saturday and puts his whole body into the fight then he can, within reason, do what he wants in his own time.
This doesn't include body-harming hedonism, but the odd fashion show here and there is probably a bit of fun. If you like that sort of thing. But, if the player in question refuses to do the nasty stuff, then he needs to spend less time looking good and more time getting mean.
My standpoint may be old school, but I still believe that respect is the most important aspect of rugby – of sport in general. And it has to be earned. The good news – and it is good news – is that Cipriani has plenty of time left to do plenty of earning, and it looks like he is coming home to do it.
I, for one, think it is a good decision to return, but he has to do it right. He is his own man – aggressively so – but I truly hope that his manager has the balls to sit him down and tell him that a shift in approach is needed, and that it must be lasting. If I step out of line, my manager calls me and tells me I have been an idiot, and she tells me to behave myself. She is invariably right and I invariably take her advice.
Cipriani does not have to wear a mask and pretend he is someone else; he must still be himself. But, in my view, he must just let his rugby do the talking instead of telling interviewers repeatedly that he intends to do this and following it up with performances that lack consistency of physical commitment and nights out on the booze when the team had agreed to stay in. This stuff makes coaches livid, and it must not be regarded as the letting down of hair or the actions of a free spirit. It is selfish behaviour and it rubs rugby players up the wrong way.
There is room for self-expression, of course. Joe Marler, the charismatic Harlequins prop, sports crazy haircuts, plays with a good dose of panache and is partial to the odd upper cut. But at no point has anybody questioned his attitude or commitment. He will have rough days at the coalface like the rest of us, but he puts it in, and this sees his relative individualism embraced by a knowledgeable public. Commentators and writers alike constantly hype him up, but he constantly backs it up by donating his body and soul to the cause.
Every club has a rota by which the weekly press afternoons are run. This means that every player has to be the interviewee once a month or so. For me, this should be the only press that Cipriani does for a good while. No special features, no "I'm back and I want my shirt" headlines and no more public declarations that this time he will do the job we all want him to do. Just do the work. Play well, be willing to die for your new club, and keep quiet.
If he does indeed sign for Sale he will have a wonderful mentor in Mark Cueto. Talented and successful, yes, but also ferociously competitive and totally humble. Simply, there is no better team man in this country.
Danny Cipriani is a young man, but he finds himself on the verge of signing what has become a make-or-break contract. I hope he achieves it all, I hope he arrives prepared to launch himself out of his comfort zone. I hope he can manage to avoid the limelight until it really is time, for if he gets it right he is good enough to play for England again. Cipriani at 10 and Farrell at 12? We can hope.