GEORGE Best, a flawed genius if ever there was one, never played at a World Cup, while Ryan Giggs, football’s shop-soiled secular saint, is certain to retire from the game similarly unfulfilled. By these measures, Danny Cipriani’s absence from rugby’s imminent global shindig in New Zealand is merely a crying shame rather than a rank injustice that diminishes an entire sport. At 23, he has at least two more shots in his locker - in England in 2015, and in Japan four years later - and will surely hit the mark with one of them.
Yet those who rightly believe Cipriani to be a special talent - a once-in-a-blue moon kind of talent - are mourning his no-show in All Black country next month. Like Best before him and Giggs just recently, the Londoner has had his behavioural issues and seen them splashed across the public prints in full and glorious Technicolor. Unlike Best and Giggs, who failed to grace the biggest stage because they happened to represent countries unable to field teams good enough to qualify, Cipriani is missing the forthcoming jamboree through choice. His choice? Or the choice of Martin Johnson and his colleagues in the England coaching team? Now, there’s a question.
It was certainly the player’s decision to cut his ties with Premiership club rugby and move to Australia, where he has just completed a first Super 15 season with the new Melbourne Rebels franchise. There again, it was Johnson’s decision to cast him as a red-rose outsider, rather than an insider capable of making the red rose bloom as it had not done since that year of years in 2003. Cipriani’s relations with the England hierarchy broke down to such a degree that the “out of sight and out of mind” option became the only option worth considering. With the main event less than a month distant, are the regrets beginning to kick in?
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel a yearning to be involved,” admits the former Wasps playmaker, back in this country with his fellow Rebels for an attractive friendly fixture with Bath at the Recreation Ground - the venue at which he once scored a solo try so spellbinding that he was instantly showered with stardust. “But what’s done is done and I’m trying to move on. As my mum keeps telling me: ’There’s no point crying over spilt milk’.
“Do I want to play for England? Of course I do. And I’m very conscious that this is my time, that now is the point where I should be starting to fulfil whatever potential I have. I feel I understand how to play the game - if there’s one thing I understand in the world, it’s rugby - but I also have to accept that there were moments when I was out of control and occasions when I didn’t understand how to put my point across to other people.
“The important thing now is to keep working hard - in fairness, I’ve always done that - and put myself in the best position to play the rugby I want to play. What happened between me and England happened. It’s life. I haven’t spoken to anyone in the England set-up: I know what I’ll be doing over the next few months and they have bigger fish to fry at the moment. But I don’t feel bitter and I know there’s no bitterness coming from Martin. I want to move everything forward by performing so well that eventually, they’ll have no choice but to pick me.”
Pick him, England surely will. But when? And from where? There is no question of Cipriani cutting short his stay in Melbourne: he signed for two seasons and he intends to deliver his side of the bargain. Yet the widespread assumption that he will return to England the moment the 2012 Super 15 tournament ends has no basis in fact. Even though the Rugby Football Union has decreed that only home-based players will be considered for the national team from the start of next year, their lost maestro may not find his way back to his homeland in anything resembling a hurry.
“There are things I’ll have to weigh up,” he says, unwilling to commit himself. “I’m excited by the Rebels and by rugby as it is played in Super 15. I’d love to be in a position to play Super 15 and play for England as well. It would be a perfect arrangement. I’d stay fresh and I’d be performing week in and week out with and against some of the people who really move the sport forward, which is better than coming up against Wallabies and the All Blacks you admire from afar and take the field thinking ’Jeez, these people are brilliant’.
“Also, I’d miss only three or four Super 15 games during a Six Nations championship - something that could probably be agreed contractually. Next year should be one of the best of my life: we have Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor [two members of the sensational Wallaby back division promising great things at the World Cup] joining us in Melbourne and the prospect of working with them is pretty attractive. If push comes to shove, there will be a lot to think through, a lot of different emotions to balance.”
Cipriani was first capped in 2008, by Brian Ashton. A few weeks later, Ashton lost his job to Johnson, despite taking England to a second successive World Cup final and a top-two finish in the Six Nations. Teacher and student remain in close touch. “Brian is one of the great coaches and I’d love to link up with him again some day,” says Cipriani. “I’ve known him since I was 15 and the lines of communication have always been open. That’s very important to me.” He also uses Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence strategist, as a sounding board, having worked under him at Wasps.
This latter connection is viewed by some as ironic, given that defence is often cited as a weakness of Cipriani’s game, just as Quade Cooper, the electrifying Wallaby outside-half, is routinely dismissed as an occasional tackler. “Quarterbacks in American football are paid not to tackle,” quips the Englishman with a theatrically sorrowful shake of the head, “but I suppose outside-halves have to do that stuff. I’m doing my best to improve my defensive game, and as it’s a state of mind rather than a technical challenge, I think I’ll get there.”
He is also planning to spend the next six weeks sharpening up with the renowned sprint coach Margot Wells, who helped her husband Allan to Olympic gold over 100 metres in the 1980 Moscow Games. Pace has always been high on the list of Cipriani’s virtues as an attacking midfielder and now, two years after suffering a fracture dislocation of the right leg during a Premiership game, he feels he is finally back up to speed. “I believe I’m in the best condition of my life,” he says.
All he has to do now is stay healthy and rip up the next Super 15 tournament by way of laying the foundations for a return to the Test scene, while maintaining a distance between himself and the front pages of newspapers at home and abroad. Can he manage all this? Even the last bit?
“In the end, it’s up to me to be more wary. I know that now,” he replies. “My ups and downs always seem to get published somewhere - I could be out with friends, drink water all night and still find myself in print - and I do feel that people pre-judge me. There wasn’t a clean slate for me even when I went to Australia: in fact, it was probably worse, because I’m English. There again, I turned up a couple of weeks late and put myself on the back foot straight away.
“What people don’t write about is the stuff I do away from the spotlight: I coach at junior schools in Melbourne, I’ve played for local clubs to help them out. It seems some journalists find it easier to blow things out of proportion than be sympathetic towards me. But the important thing is that I feel accepted by my team. Yes, there were things I got wrong, but for a 22-year-old to leave his home for a new career on the other side of the world... that’s a big step for anyone, isn’t it?“
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