Danny Cipriani, widely acknowledged to be the most exciting rugby talent to have emerged in England since Jonny Wilkinson and the very epitome of a young player in a hurry, was not quite quick enough to avoid the attentions of a lurking photographer as he left a London nightspot in the small hours of yesterday morning, and as a result, he was thrown out of the national team for tomorrow's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Murrayfield. It would have been the 20-year-old's first start at Test level. The best he can hope for now is a common or garden league game for his club, Wasps.
The England head coach, Brian Ashton, made the swiftest of decisions to cut Cipriani from his Six Nations side once a picture of his latest full-back emerging from a Mayfair club some 30 minutes after midnight hit the news-stands in the capital. He said the player had been guilty of "inappropriate behaviour" and added: "I will keep an open mind on selecting him for future games."
This provoked a sulphurous response from Wasps, a club whose relationship with successive England coaches might best be described as uneasy. Their director of rugby, Ian McGeechan, one of the most respected figures in the world game, made no effort to conceal his displeasure at Cipriani's treatment, saying: "We are hugely disappointed with the decision to withdraw Danny from the England team, and similarly disappointed for Danny himself. He was pictured outside a nightclub, where he had gone to see a friend. He did not stay inside the club for any length of time, and he was not drinking. He was at worst naïve in his actions, but no more than that. Given the circumstances, a measured response was required. I think this is very harsh."
By way of adding fuel to the fire, the three-times Lions coach said that he expected Cipriani to train with Wasps this morning, and would consider selecting him for the London derby with Harlequins on Sunday. Should England fail to retain the Calcutta Cup, and Cipriani then play a blinder for his club 24 hours later, the fallout will be toxic indeed.
Iain Balshaw of Gloucester, one of Ashton's favourite players but heavily criticised in many quarters for his performances in the first three rounds of the championship, has been restored to the starting line-up, having been demoted to the bench to make way for Cipriani. The knock-on effect sees the Sale outside-half Charlie Hodgson, who has not played for his country since suffering a serious knee injury during England's last victory over the Springboks almost 16 months ago, filling the gap in the replacements' roster.
Wasps insiders said that Cipriani was distraught at being turfed out of the team for doing nothing more heinous than deliver a handful of match tickets to friends before driving home. It was thought Ashton and McGeechan exchanged words over the decision to drop the youngster, but it was not clear whether the England coach spoke to the player at any serious length before making an example of him.
There is no direct precedent for such action. Dean Richards, one of the great No 8s in England rugby history and now the director of rugby at Harlequins, was once banned for a match after using the Calcutta Cup as a rugby ball in Edinburgh, but that incident happened after the match. Another No 8, Lawrence Dallaglio, was stripped of the national captaincy in 1999 after the News of the World lured him into a deeply embarrassing sex-and-drugs confession. Dallaglio, a current team-mate of Ciprian, was also fined before being fast-tracked back into the Test team in time for the World Cup later that year.
Cipriani has already had his share of fun and games with the tabloids, whose interest in his love life underlines his status as a sporting superstar in the making, yet he has played only minor roles in two England matches to date. He suffered an uncomfortable 20 minutes or so as Wales came from behind to win 26-19 at Twickenham five weeks ago and then handed Italy a soft try in Rome by having a kick charged down. England won that game, narrowly.
Ashton always intended to start him at some point during the current tournament, however – either at full-back or outside-half, which would have meant the coach dropping Wilkinson, who, it is safe to say, is rarely photographed outside nightclubs two days before an important fixture. "To be honest, the position is not the key thing when it comes to bringing in a young player," the coach said as recently as last Tuesday evening. "I'm much more interested in whether he's mentally ready for the challenge of international rugby. In my view, Danny is definitely ready." That was then.
Ironically enough, Cipriani has frequently identified the man who dropped the goal that won a World Cup for England as one of his role models. "I used to watch Jonny play, now I'm training with him," he said this week. "I have to keep learning from people like him, because the day I rest on my laurels will be the day I retire, and I don't intend to do that for another 15 years."
He said something else, too – something that came back to bite him on the rear end yesterday. "Some people see me as a free spirit or a maverick because I have a reputation for trying things, but above everything, I aim to keep my mistakes to a minimum." The people who pay his wages at Wasps do not believe he made a mistake by popping into a London club to do his friends a favour, but unfortunately for Cipriani, he was not playing for Wasps this weekend. Or rather, he was not meant to be.