Make or break move for Cipriani
February 21, 2010
The many faces of Danny Cipriani - in action for Wasps, with girlfriend Kelly Brook, on the sidelines with England and on the London social scene © Getty Images
The link between Wasps fly-half Danny Cipriani and prolific screenwriter Peter Ling may not be immediately apparent although fellow alumni may be able to tell you that both were pupils at Whitgift School in Croydon. But when I tell you that Ling's most famous creation was the much-maligned ITV soap Crossroads then the association is perhaps clear at the end of a week where Cipriani, faced with a career-defining decision, chose the road less travelled.
You wait several months for confirmation that an English fly-half is heading to pastures new in the southern hemisphere and suddenly two take the plunge in the same week. But with due respect to Andy Goode and his short-term deal with the Durban-based Sharks - it is Cipriani's decision to take on a new challenge with the Melbourne Rebels that has got the rugby world talking.
When one of the most talented players of this or any generation opts for a dramatic career path then you are forced to take notice. The 22-year-old's move effectively ends his international career - for now - but it is his lack of form and reported failure to embrace the team dynamic that have contributed to his fall from favour rather than his decision to re-locate.
In recent months it has become increasingly clear that Cipriani needed to act to breathe life into a career that looked destined for greatness when he made a dazzling full England debut against Ireland in 2008. Charged with reviving England's flagging fortunes he produced a memorable performance to announce himself on the world stage. It appeared England had a player to spearhead the next generation but sadly, somewhere along the way, something went wrong.
For those not aware of the finer detail of what has been a rollercoaster couple of years for Cipriani, his decision to up sticks and in effect rule himself out of contention for the 2011 Rugby World Cup would appear a little confusing and maybe even selfish. But in truth he has backed himself into a corner, alienated the England management and lost the game-breaking essence from his game making a fresh start more a necessity than a luxury. Some may see his move to Australia as an egotistical act but the Super Rugby stage offers him a clean start and chance to rebuild his reputation on and of the field.
Cipriani is no stranger to the headlines which is perhaps surprising for someone who has pulled on his country's colours just seven times. Be it his celebrity girlfriends, getting knocked out by a team-mate in training, an apparently innocent visit to a nightclub on the eve of an international, an horrific injury, an alleged altercation with an England coach or dropping the f-word into a post-match TV interview, the photogenic fly-half has never been too far away from the headlines or the cameras.
These instances alone could perhaps be explained away by the exuberance of youth but those who know him best point to more worrying character flaws and their detrimental effect on not only his career but those around him. A "great talent" but with an "ability to alienate team-mates" was the conclusion drawn by former England captain Will Carling after he investigated the possibility of rescuing the youngster's flagging career. "I have spent the last six weeks trying to focus Danny and, without laying the blame at anyone's door, the main reason that I have decided not to go ahead is that I do not believe that Danny's focus is on playing for England," Carling revealed recently, hinting that Cipriani's mind has been elsewhere for some time.
Cipriani's apparent shortcomings are nothing new with reports suggesting he has exuded arrogance since his school days, with his attitude stoked by his undoubted talent. "If he didn't think another player was any good, he just wouldn't pass to them," one former team-mate revealed in a newspaper following Cipriani's ascent to the international stage. His player profile for a programme for a school tour to South Africa in 2000 said, "Danny is always up for action on and off the pitch. He just needs reminding from time to time it is actually a team game."
His reputation followed him to Wasps who he joined as a 15-year-old with the likes of Ian McGeechan, Shaun Edwards and sprint coach Margot Wells charged with nurturing his talent and shaping the man. His game continued to develop but his profile flourished at the same rate with one fuelling the other.
"What I like about Danny," former team-mate Lawrence Dallaglio told Observer Sport Monthly in 2008, "is that he will do something on the rugby pitch and it won't always work, and everyone will shout at him and say, "What the hell did you do that for?" And it will cost him. Then 10 minutes later he will try it again and it will work. He's not put off, his confidence is not damaged by that and that shows as much as you need to know about him."
Another telling observation was made by The Times' Alyson Rudd around the same time of his full debut. "When I tell Cipriani that he reminds me of Dan Carter, the All Blacks fly-half, he says "thank you" very clearly and deliberately, the way people who are complimented all the time have learnt to say it. He is only 20, but he has had years of praise and knowing that he is a talented sportsman."
It is true that Cipriani fielded interest from both Surrey Cricket Club and Reading Football Club but was drawn to the "ultimate team game". "When you go on to the team bus afterwards you know that people have played a hard team game for you. There's that camaraderie about rugby that I really enjoy."
It would appear that Cipriani needs reminding of the core values that drew him to the game and what better place to do that in an environment where he is relatively unknown. His arrival with girlfriend Kelly Brook is unlikely to cause the kind of media waves generated by David and Victoria Beckham's assault on the United States and it will be up to Cipriani to build bridges with players and coaches not aware of his fame or his reputation and earn their respect where it matters most - on the playing field. It is that return to the basics and a focus on the game alone that will likely be his saviour.
Cipriani still harbours hopes of playing in the 2011 Rugby World Cup, insisting that his soon-to-be-home is "only one transfer" away but he is sadly deluded if he thinks he will be an integral part of England's plans for the tournament - no matter how devastating his impact on the Super 15. An unprecedented injury crisis did its best to ruin Martin Johnson's best laid plans in November but it would take more than that for England's fifth or sixth choice No.10 to find himself back in the mix come that time - at best he can hope to make the fringes of the squad.
The Six Nations remains the key proving ground for all of Europe's leading players and Cipriani's enforced absence from next year's competition means he has next to no chance of returning to the international stage before England head to New Zealand. Even if the undoubtedly talented fly-half proves an instant hit and outshines the likes of New Zealand's Dan Carter and Australia's Matt Giteau, England's summer tours and the end of year internationals in November do not offer the required competitive environment - and let us not forget that Cipriani would still need to force his way into the reckoning, a little difficult when he will not be playing. Any such scenario would also require special treatment - something that you feel the current England management would be loth to give him.
If he is serious about getting his career back on track he is better off putting thoughts of an international return to one side and channel his energy into making the Rebels a success. His decision to turn down a more lucrative move to French giants Stade Francais is commendable and it suggests he is focused on his rugby rather than his bank balance.
And this fact is by his underlined by his relocation to a country where there sport's profile is relatively low, to a city that is obsessed by the AFL and to a market where his commercial value will be non-existent and where he will not be tabloid fodder. But it remains a gamble - if injury strikes again or form is hard to come by then it could well be a case of out of sight, out of mind. Time is on his side and no matter how spectacular or disappointing the move turns out to be, his rugby education is bound to benefit - but only time will tell if he can fulfil the potential he so obviously has.
As it has always been, his talent remains the key to his success - it is just up to him not to waste it.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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