Rise of a Red Rose shooting star: Cipriani seizes his moment
England's brightest hope is preparing to make his first international start in the Calcutta Cup, the oldest contest of them all. Just as well, then, that he has an evident love of the limelight
Wednesday 05 March 2008
Danny Cipriani has fairly flown up the pecking order and it was only a matter of time before he was named in England's starting XV. To pitch the 20-year-old into a Calcutta Cup match against Scotland at Murrayfield might appear to be one of the roundhead Brian Ashton's more cavalier selections, but if there is anything Cipriani lacks it is not confidence.
He is good and he knows it and this season he has shown it, on hostile grounds from Stradey Park in Llanelli to Thomond Park in Limerick. He was not intimidated. He looked at home. When Ashton was head of the Rugby Football Union's National Academy, he identified "Cips", as he is known to team-mates, as one of the brightest stars in the red rose galaxy.
Ashton named Danny Boy in his initial World Cup squad for the adventure in France last year, but the then teenager did not make the final 30. "Brian explained that he wanted more experienced players," he said. "I thought I could have been ready to make the step up. It was very disappointing at the time but it's how you react that's important."
Cipriani reacted very well indeed. "I learnt a lot at the England training camp with one on ones with people like Jason Robinson. When I returned to Wasps the attitude was fantastic and I just started training harder. The whole experience made me even more hungry."
Cipriani did not make it to Paris or Marseilles and instead watched the World Cup on television, usually in the company of his mother, Anne. His father, Jay, lives in Tobago. "The whole family originally came from Trinidad so I'm half West Indian, although there may be an Italian connection."
A Wasp he may be but somewhat removed from the American WASP – white Anglo-Saxon, Protestant. Thus far in his young career he has been a star of Rugby World and the News of the World. He denies that he was dating one of the Cheeky Girls – the one not dating Lembit Opik MP – but it was alleged that Cipriani was ditched when he went clubbing in London with a stunner who turned out to be a transsexual. Best to concentrate on the rugby.
"I know it's going to be a massive game against Scotland with all that history and I can't wait," Cipriani said. "I used to watch Jonny Wilkinson play and now I'm training with him. I've got to learn from these people, pick up bits from all the best players. I want to become the best in the world at what I do. There's loads to improve on."
It was not Jonny, however, who first inspired Cipriani. Instead it was the former All Black full-back Christian Cullen. "He was my idol and he got me into rugby in the first place. When I first started I used to get up early in the morning and watch the Super 12 from the southern hemisphere. Brian Ashton doesn't want players to go within themselves. I love running with the ball and I want to use my pace. I want to try and do things."
Cipriani has been working with the sprint coach Margot Wells for 18 months. "After the first week I was dying. She'd say something was good but could have been better. When I was 18 I spent six days a week with her for six weeks in pre-season training."
He is delighted to report that he can clock 2.69 seconds for 30 yards, a time faster than that recorded by a former England wing, Dan Luger. "I feel sharp," he said. "I don't want to rest on my laurels. I'll do that when I've retired."
Cipriani's breakthrough this season arrived following the departure of the Wasps No 10 Alex King to France. Both of them featured in the club's victory in the Heineken Cup final over Leicester at Twickenham last season, King at stand-off, Cipriani at full-back, and the younger man came through it pretty well.
At 19 he possessed a European Cup winner's medal and, simultaneously and uniquely, was named the Wasps academy player of the year. When King left for Clermont Auvergne, Cipriani took the No 10 jersey.
"[The 2003 England World Cup winner] Josh Lewsey has been messed about in different positions in his career and he's given me a lot of advice," Cipriani said. "I don't mind at all switching to full-back. No 15 is where I first started and I'd play in the back row if they asked me. Whatever gets me the furthest quickest."
Cipriani came on as a replacement during England's opening Six Nations match, the defeat by Wales at Twickenham, and was looking forward to receiving a pass from Wilkinson. When it came it soared over his head. Embarrassment all round. He also made an appearance as an understudy to Wilkinson in the narrow victory over Italy in Rome. No sooner had he appeared than he tried a chip ahead. It was charged down and Italy scored a famous try. Embarrassment all round.
A week later, playing in the Guinness Premiership at Bath, he was advised by Shaun Edwards (the dual coach of Wasps and Wales) that whatever he did he should not attempt a chip in midfield. Cipriani, of course, did not take Edwards' advice on board; at the Rec he chipped ahead, was half-tackled, somehow kept his balance when it appeared certain he would hit the earth, regained possession and sprinted in for a brilliant try. Anybody in the world would have been proud of it.
Afterwards Edwards acknowledged the try. "Fair play," he told the youngster. "You saw it was on and you went for it."
Cipriani was born in Roehampton, where he played for Rosslyn Park juniors. He attended the Oratory School near Reading and later the Whitgift School, Croydon. "My mum sent me to all the right schools." He excelled at squash, cricket and football and could have become a professional footballer on Reading's books.
"At 15 I stopped playing soccer and cricket and concentrated on rugby. It's what I enjoyed most. I love the camaraderie. I'm very proud to be a professional rugby player. What I really love is winning. The thing I most dislike is a bad attitude. I have been lucky. I have benefited from being with a phenomenal set of players and coaches."
On Saturday, England will field a back three – Cipriani, Paul Sackey and Lesley Vainikolo – none of whom had started a Six Nations match before this season. Explaining Iain Balshaw's demotion, Ashton said: "There were a couple of issues and Iain's accuracy in the air was one of them but England were as much to blame for Balshaw's failure to make an impact as he was himself. It has become a problem position and we're looking for somebody to claim the jersey.
"I think Danny is somebody who can play international rugby at stand-off or full-back. The question is whether he was mentally ready to start a Test and the answer is yes. He has deceptive pace, has a good kicking game and I'm confident he'll do well."
So is Cipriani, who in Edinburgh will be reunited with his headgear, what they used to call a scrum-cap. At Bath he left it at home and his mother was not happy. She insists he wears it. With Cipriani the cap appears to fit.
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