James Lawton: Future of English rugby all behind Cipriani the wayward wunderkind

Click to follow

Whatever else happens at Twickenham this afternoon English rugby will be kidding only itself if it does not acknowledge one gut-wrenching defeat. It is the grievous deficiency implicit in the absence of Danny Cipriani.

A deficiency, this is, in husbanding what has for some time represented by a big margin the nation's most engaging rugby potential.

First, though, it is necessary to acknowledge the admirable yeoman qualities of the occupant of the No 10 jersey, Andy Goode, against Italy. But then you have to say that the non-appearance of Cipriani, the most promising English player of this and most other generations, at the dawn of a season crucial to the development of a crisis-ridden team, is a lot more than a single failure to deliver – in reasonable time – a precocious talent to an acceptable level of performance at the highest level.

It is a missed opportunity that can only exaggerate the feeling of lost horizons and stunted growth of a team who less than six years ago ground down the best of world opposition – and a mere 16 months ago resurrected themselves to the point of an appearance in the World Cup final.

Cipriani's false dawn is surely central to the profound sense of not just underperformance but lost coherence. Whatever you thought of former coach Brian Ashton's handling of largely superannuated superstars, as opposed to his highly respected grasp of the game's technicalities, the manner of his marginalisation was both desperate and gutless.

England retreated into the bastion of Martin Johnson's aura, which sooner or later may restate its value, but in the meantime continues to look like an extremely poor second to the brilliant organisation and drive Warren Gatland has brought to renascent Wales.

No doubt the now ageing Cipriani – 21 is, after all, relatively advanced for a wunderkind, especially when you think the great Barry John was only a few years older when, after a series of masterful performances, he began to contemplate retirement – and his advisers can be accused of jumbled priorities. Can you imagine, for example, the neophyte Jonny Wilkinson having his own press agent, so far below the mountain top? Johnson may well argue that sending Cipriani off with the second team to Dublin constituted, at least potentially, the most effective possible wake-up call. But, really, wake-up call? It is surely getting a little late to put too much faith in such draconian measures.

The trouble is that wake-up calls are supposed to ensure your presence at a most important date. Cipriani's plane ride to Ireland unfortunately represented a clear case of a missed boat.

Of course, Cipriani has time to disabuse some of us of the view that he has heaped upon himself the kind of killing distraction so religiously avoided by Wilkinson. His defenders say that he was simply rushed too quickly back after injury into the disastrous autumn series, rather than proving inadequate in face of the challenges placed before him, but the theory is weakened now by Johnson's decision that he could not entrust Cipriani with the pivotal role against the weakest of the six nations.

The player is apparently seething at his exclusion. He was certainly tetchy when dealing with criticism after the autumn performances which cast such serious doubts against the assumption that not only would he succeed Wilkinson quite naturally, but also bring to the task subtleties and flair beyond the means of the ageing and physically battered champion. No, Cipriani snapped, he didn't have a problem with celebrity. He was entirely focused on the challenge ahead.

It would be unfair, no doubt, to isolate Cipriani to the point where too many of England's ills are placed on his shoulders. Wales, for example, were not consumed by the volatilities of their super-talent cum enfant terrible Gavin Henson, in any way that checked their progress as the most dramatically improved team in Europe. But if England are in disrepair, if they seem to have lost so much of the motivation that was such a key to the success of Sir Clive Woodward's world-beaters, it is surely inescapable that Cipriani, for the moment at least, is seen as the most damning symbol of their plight.

He was, there is no way around it, the future. He was a rare English rugby player, a virtuoso who would not suffer in any comparison with the flair of the French or the Welsh. The belief was not touched seriously when Ashton administered that first official reaction to the belief that here was a gifted boy running ahead of himself. Ashton denied Cipriani his first cap because he had been seen late in a London nightclub delivering match tickets, abstemiously we were told, to some friends. At the time some of us thought the action both harsh and counter-productive, perhaps somewhat impertinently against the coach's long developed knowledge of the player's personality.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of that affair, it is hard now to dispute Ashton's suggestion that, if Cipriani had immense talent, it was perhaps not matched by the concentration of his mind.

Cipriani insists he will be back to take possession of his destiny. However worthily Andy Goode performs today, Twickenham will surely ache that the former boy wonder is as good as his word. And ache not only for the loss of entertainment, but maybe any slight belief that English rugby has much of a clue about what it is doing.

Boycott's the third opinion worth referring to

Two entirely spurious arguments have been spawned by the Test action. One is that not only did Kevin Pietersen, the darling of the Indian Premier League along with Andrew Flintoff, prove that he is cricket's most talented batsman but that he also re-exerted his claim to be captain.

The other is that the new referral system designed to eradicate the most serious umpire error is nothing so much as a waste of vital playing time.

In both debates it is impossible not to join ranks with the great curmudgeon Geoffrey Boycott.

While it is true that his analysis, especially in the final session when he is warming to the idea of supper on some palm-thronged terrace, can sometimes push beyond all known limits of self-belief, mostly he belongs in a class of his own as a serious observer of the game he played with such dour brilliance.

In his admiration for the captain's innings of the West Indian Chris Gayle, Boycott underlined his dismay at the surge of blood which led Pietersen to throw away his wicket on the verge of a superb century.

Boycott's regret, even as a man who still hoards his own statistics with a jealous passion, was not that Pietersen squandered the possibility of still another hundred. It was that he didn't think like a captain. He didn't build upon the hugely promising advantage he had created for "his" team.

Boycott was equally withering on critics of the new plan to remove the most glaring injustices of the raised finger.

Yes, there was some lost time – the third umpire will have to sharpen his act – but in a game notorious for loitering and shameful over rates, surely the exercise was worthwhile. On the matter of potential humiliation for officials, Boycott was equally impressive.

As he has frequently told his celebrated friend Dickie Bird, an umpire's dignity ran a poor second to the prevention of his being proved unassailably wrong, sometimes crucially with regard to the outcome of a Test match.

Some described umpire Tony Hill as the first victim of the new system. Boycott preferred to say that he had been saved from possibly game-deciding errors.

There is also the fact, Boycott might have said, that one of the great curses inflicted on the game that used to be one of manners is an uncontrollable flood of cheap and often cheating appeals.

Cricket has experienced a few teething problems but is surely right, in an age when every ball can be analysed relentlessly from the television booth, to work on getting things right.

Football, the ultimate slave of television, as ITV reminded us when it switched to the ads while Everton were scoring the decisive goal against Liverpool, is pathetically slow to see the point.

Federer passes acid test of life

It is interesting that of all the world's active multimillionaire tennis players, the greatest achiever is least aggrieved by the imposition of new and stringent drug testing.

While Andy Murray rails at the idea that for an hour of every day he has to account for his movements – even when he is suffering from jet lag – Roger Federer concedes that, however irksome, it is probably necessary for the image of the game.

Rafa Nadal, a little disappointingly for those of his admirers who believe that no one better could inherit the legacy of the master, has declared himself in the Murray camp. Still, others will be relieved to know that the boy-man has still something to learn, if not about tennis but life.