So Danny Cipriani cannot make it into an England summer tour squad in Lions year.
It's an interesting one, for sure. I don't think there were too many people at the start of the season who believed an outside-half so rich in talent would finish the campaign down there amongst the second-string Saxons, behind the likes of Andy Goode and Sam Vesty, but now that it's happened, I have to say that I don't understand the thinking. Cipriani isn't a world-beater yet, but he could become one – and that sets him far apart from the majority of professional players.
Of all the No 10s in the Guinness Premiership, who has the potential to win a World Cup for England? Look at it in this light, and the field narrows right down. I particularly admire what Vesty has achieved for Leicester in recent months: defensively outstanding, he clearly has a sound skill set and an instinct for game management. But the thing that separates players at international level is pace, and Cipriani is just about the quickest around. If for no other reason – and believe me, this bloke has plenty of other things going for him – Martin Johnson and his staff should be doing everything in their power to bring him to fulfilment.
There are, of course, a lot of whispers that the England hierarchy, who rightly place a great deal of store on teamship, are less than impressed by Cipriani's attitude. There might be some truth in it, although I can't say for certain, never having worked with him. But does anyone out there seriously believe that the overwhelming majority of truly gifted sportsmen are modern-day saints? Some are easy-going and straightforward, but like any other coach who has operated at international level, I'm no stranger to the awkward squad.
If we assume that attitude is a big consideration in this affair – and it pretty much has to be, given that the player's footballing ability cannot conceivably be an issue – then there is indeed some sorting to be done. But the really important point is this: England do not have unlimited time in which to build their side for the next World Cup in New Zealand. It's a little over two years away – or, in match terms, 20 or so Test matches distant. Sometime soon, someone will have to identify the best personnel and get them playing together. As I've mentioned before, teams that lift the Webb Ellis Trophy tend to have about 600 caps' worth of experience between them.
I believe England will need Cipriani in 2011. I also believe that if they are as serious about taking him as the ought to be, they should be exposing him to regular top-level rugby without delay. Yes, his form has been indifferent this season, but there have been glimpses of a certain something that is all too rare in the sport. Enough glimpses, surely, to have secured him a place in a senior squad shorn of a dozen or more players through injury or Lions selection.
Talking of the Lions, it hasn't been a good week for them. Leaving aside the Alan Quinlan disciplinary affair, they've been hurt by Leigh Halfpenny's fitness problems and seriously wounded by the enforced withdrawal of the Irish hooker Jerry Flannery. The Springboks have hassles of their own, but at least they can fall back on a degree of familiarity. The Lions are trying to build their team and develop their systems against the clock – a hard enough task when everyone stays healthy, but well nigh impossible if people are breaking down at every turn.
This evening's Heineken Cup final between Leicester and Leinster has the potential for more carnage: can you imagine how the Lions would feel flying to South Africa tomorrow without Brian O'Driscoll? With a little luck, the tourists involved in the game will come through bruised, but unbattered. Anything worse will set Ian McGeechan and the coaching team back another week.
We all know it will be a hard game. When Leicester are involved, when is it anything other than hard? I think they'll be more comfortable up front today than they were against London Irish in last week's Premiership final, but I also think Leinster will attack them with more pace and more variety.Reuse content