Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson asks whether Danny Cipriani’s return to England can really re-ignite his international career…
So, the ‘Bad Boy’ of English rugby is coming home. After what might in understated fashion be called an ‘interesting’ sojourn with the Melbourne Rebels, Danny Cipriani has signed a three-year deal with Sale Sharks. The 24 year old will be back in the northern hemisphere for the start of the 2012/13 season hoping to convince everyone that the player who was once baptised as the heir apparent to Jonny Wilkinson still has the necessary fire in his belly to represent his country again. According to Sale boss Steve Diamond Cipriani’s “gone really well down there” during his two years playing Super XVs. The facts don’t particularly bear this out. The Rebels are currently lying in 12th place in the Super XV table after four games of the new season. They finished 15th last time around notching just three wins and 13 losses, while Cipriani made more headlines for nicking a bottle of vodka from a nightclub and breaking a club curfew than anything else. Of course Cipriani’s individual showings on the pitch might well have been tickety boo (he did finish the 2011 Super XV season as Rebels’ top scorer with 108 points), but I think it’s fair to say that the jury’s going to be most definitely out on the lad until he laces up his boots on a regular basis in Manchester and we see what he’s got in his locker.
What’s never been in doubt is that Cipriani has natural ability. He last played for England in 2008 and showed back then that he had it in him to do stuff that lesser players simply couldn’t. What he was clearly lacking, though, was an ability always to make the right decisions at the right times and not to make errors that would prove costly. Someone once told me that the best international players are the ones who make the fewest mistakes; and while that might sound a bit reductionist, it’s true that you’re far more likely to get punished for the slightest bit of sloppiness on the international stage. Coaches will soon tire of a player who produces a moment of genius, but who ultimately loses you the match.
Joining Sale is an interesting career choice for Cipriani, though. Steve Diamond is clearly looking to put bums on seats in an area that has not traditionally enjoyed enormous rugby support. He believes that Cipriani has the right ‘wow factor’. “We forget he’s a young kid and he probably became famous for his celebrity antics,” said Diamond. “That bit doesn’t really bother me. He will be more famous for what he does on the rugby field. Rugby union is crying out for a superstar and after Jonny Wilkinson he could be the man.” That’s a pretty bullish statement, given that Cipriani last played for his country three and a half years ago and was far more famous for his paparazzi-pleasing relationship with the pneumatic Kelly Brook than his top-level rugby exploits.
Can Cipriani become rugby’s next superstar? Well he’s got Owen Farrell in front of him right now and shifting the Saracens man from the England Number 10 jersey won’t be a simple job if Farrell maintains his form and continues to improve at his current rate. And you wouldn’t have thought that the move to Manchester would help build Cipriani’s profile as much as signing for a Saracens or a Leicester might have done. You could argue that it didn’t harm Jonny Wilkinson any when he spent season after season in the rugby netherlands of Newcastle. But Wilko didn’t have any interest in the celebrity side of being a high-profile sportsman. Maybe that’s exactly why Cipriani has chosen an unfashionable club, to show the world that he’s finally 100% serious about his rugby and that the impetuosities of his youth are behind him. In terms of re-establishing himself as a player we can all trust in the new climate of a more humble England, it may well be a good strategy. But there’s only one theatre of truth that will count for Danny Cipriani in the final analysis – and that’s out on the pitch. If he can prove that he’s matured as a rugby player then that will be by far the best way of showing the England selectors that he’s got his head right, that he’s determined to make the most of his talents and that he really is serious about representing his country at the highest level again.
We’ve all done daft things in our youth, things we wish we hadn’t done. As they say, to err is human and to forgive is divine. So we should all be prepared to forgive Danny Cipriani his indiscretions, just so long as he proves he’s put childish things aside and has the desire to be a fly half of genuine international calibre. If he can do that, it will not only be Sale’s gain, but also England’s. And nightclub owners will also be able to sleep easy in their beds knowing that their vodka stocks won’t be in any imminent danger!
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