Danny Cipriani, the mercurial English talent written off time and again during a career of highs and lows, is back in the international fold - and boy does he deserve it.
The Sale Sharks number 10 has turned his fortunes around with a little bit of on-field magic, a lot of off-field work. A timely performance against Aviva Premiership leaders Northampton a fortnight ago in-front of the watching Stuart Lancaster sealed the deal.
“Against the Saints we produced under pressure and got a big win. That’s the type of thing that gets you noticed and I’ve been playing well as part of a team,” he tells GiveMeSport less than 24 hours after his call-up.
“We’ve had some good performances as a team recently, beating some of the top teams in the Premiership, and I’ve just been focused on what is in front of me. That has paid off for me and I’m obviously very happy to be picked for England once again. Now the hard work begins for me to show what I can do."
It was all supposed to be easy for the 27-year-old, who burst onto the scene at Wasps and had a Heineken Cup winners medal in the bag as early as 2007. The following year, he was in the England squad having missed out on a call-up for the World Cup under Brian Ashton - the same man who axed him on the eve of his starting debut and is now hailing the fly-half as an ‘X Factor’ who can win test matches.
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The perils of a media searching for the next Jonny Wilkinson followed high-profile off-field incidents, and that coupled with some serious injuries saw the outside-half move to Australia in the summer of 2010. His spell with the Melbourne Rebels wasn’t without incident, and despite flashes of brilliance in the southern hemisphere, he left knowing he would have to do more to make an impact at the highest level.
A collision with a double-decker bus did little to fuel the idea of change on his return to the UK at the AJ Bell stadium, but as time has gone on Cipriani has been able to change the minds of the people who really matter.
Behind the scenes, the work has been constant. Steve Black, the motivation guru credited with getting the best out of Jonny Wilkinson, was drafted in to focus the mind, whilst Margot Wells - a former Olympic sprinter - has been called upon to help improve Cipriani’s speed.
Another watch of his try in the 18-11 win over Exeter Chiefs last month suggests that both of the above are having a positive impact.
For all his talent though, the finger has always been pointed at defence. An area of apparent weakness, Cipriani has tackled the problem head-on over the past two seasons with the help of Mike Forshaw, a defensive specialist who plied his trade as a player in both Union and League. The Sharks snapped him up in 2013, and his impact has been seen throughout the team over the past 18 months.
“I’ve definitely brought a new level of intensity to my defence in that time. I don’t it's ever ever been terrible - there have been times when I have missed a few tackles but you don't get picked by people like Shaun Edwards (former Wasps coach) if you can't make a tackle," he adds.
"You don’t get picked for England or for higher honours without being able to defend, but it’s another area that I knew I could improve and have worked on getting better. I will continue to do that.”
In an interview with the BBC yesterday, Lancaster specifically noted that his defence had improved, and that goal-kicking and game management were key areas the England management were looking at. Last season, Cipriani’s kicking strike rate percentage was 71.4 in the Premiership; compared to George Ford’s 75.4%, Stephen Myler’s 83.3% and Owen Farrell’s 78.7%.
Cipriani is around the same mark domestically once again this season, although adding in his stats from European Champions Cup matches moves that figure closer to 80%. The former Whitgift student certainly knows his numbers, and it’s a mark of the man doing his research off the pitch in pursuit of perfection.
“I know people have been looking and highlighting my goal-kicking stats this year, which is at about 70% in the Premiership. I want that to be better of course and across all competitions I know it’s at around 80%, which is up there where it should be. The target is always 100% and to make every kick I take, so again it’s something I work on day in, day out, and try and improve,” he adds.
“It drives me to get better and work harder on improving my game. It can get frustrating when certain things are always highlighted, but the analysis that Sale have been doing on my defence and kicking show me that I’m doing well in those key areas and I’m pretty happy with it. You can always get better though - that’s what motivates me."
People know Cipriani has talent. It’s without question. And yet it’s perceived flaws in his game that we try and focus on. In many ways, that’s indicative of the way the British public view their sporting stars. What aren’t they good at; where might they let the team down? Why not ask what skills might win a game.
True, there must be a balancing act. The best player in the world in attack must also be able to defend and do the important things well. Over the past 12 months in particular, Cipriani has proved that he can do these basics very well in a team fighting for everything.
The No.10 certainly doesn’t get anything on a plate in Cheshire, and with the greatest respect to a Sale side punching above their weight and impressing in the league, they aren’t Bath, Saracens or Northampton. Is there an international comparison to be made here with England and the likes of New Zealand?
Consistency is key at the very highest level, and Cipriani knows that. In the eyes of the rugby public, his point of difference - a phrase used by Lancaster when describing the fly-half yesterday - is an ability to create a piece of magic that can lead to a try that wins a game.
Not the case in the eyes of a mature, experienced playmaker.
Point of difference
“My point of difference has to be making consistently good decisions, not individual flashes or moments. I read the game well and that’s what I want to keep doing - all the other 10s in this England squad do that as well, so it’s about being consistent in that area,” he notes.
"This is a fantastic chance to work up close and personal with three of the other best 10s in the country, getting the chance to see how they play and to bounce ideas off each other."
These are not throw away remarks. Cipriani is a man on a mission to learn and improve, and there is perhaps no better place to do that than in the England training camp at Pennyhill Park. Ford, Farrell, Myler and Cipriani are all different in their own way, and each can offer something the other perhaps can’t. In a 23-man matchday squad, only two will make it for the Six Nations opener against Wales, and all signs suggest it’s Ford and Farrell in the pole positions.
Cipriani is under no illusions that he’s not currently at the top of the pecking order, but he’s well aware that his selection into the practice squad is an opportunity to showcase his talent once again in-front of the watching England coaches. He got that chance in New Zealand and impressed both off and on the pitch, before missing out in the Autumn internationals.
Learn the England system
That must have been a bitter pill to swallow; after performing well for country and then club, Lancaster opted against the man and stuck to his basic principles. Cipriani doesn’t hold a grudge, and instead went about his business with Sale. The reward has now come his way, and it’s now about immersing himself in the squad as quickly as possible rather than proving a point.
“For me, it’s about going in and learning the whole culture that Stuart has built in the England camp. Everyone is so positive about it and I got a sense of that in New Zealand, bringing the pride and fight back into the shirt.
"There is nobody hungrier to play for England than myself, and I will try and show that in training.
“Throughout the whole squad there are a lot of characters who have gone through a lot of different things, and it’s going to be enjoyable to be around that and to develop myself. I really felt like being on tour last summer, I got the chance to come away a better player than I arrived. From that, I started this season really well, and if this leads to further improvement in my game, hopefully I can kick on to another level.”
The Top 14 decision
If Cipriani does as planned at England camp and is then overlooked again, it might be for the last time. Speculation is rife that French clubs have come to the table with offers for a player who is out of contract at the end of the season.
Lancaster does not give guarantees to anybody, and he’s right to do so. Nobody is guaranteed a spot in the national team, and they have to earn it with a consistent level of performance that is up to the required standard.
But if that happens, and selection is not forthcoming, then what happens next? The opportunity to become a very rich man is one thing, but the chance to play in a brilliant Top 14 side like Toulon is another. Could Cipriani fill the boots of Wilkinson in Toulon like he was supposed to with England?
There are so many questions, and it will all come to a head in the coming weeks. Cipriani must make the decision of a lifetime, and the upcoming training camp is likely to prove pivotal.
He concludes: “I’ve got to make a decision in a few weeks, and getting recognition and being involved in the England squad does help of course."
"There are things I’ve got to weigh up in relation to my career and my long-term future, and that’s something I will have to sit down and discuss with people close to me."
Sir Clive Woodward, the most respected England coach in history, wrote today that he would start Cipriani in the opening Six Nations game against Wales on Friday, 6th February. That’s a long shot at this stage.
But to consider why a man of Woodward’s stature would suggest such a thing of a player who has had to fight tooth-and-nail just to make it into the squad is a conundrum in itself. Cipriani possesses match-winning ability, and that coupled with a new-found consistency makes him the perfect fit at international level.
England have become so concerned with winning ugly that they've forgotten what it's like to have a maverick talent in their side. That's a maverick who now plays by the rules and does the dirty work when it matters to boot. That's the type of player that can win you a World Cup.
Danny Cipriani is now that player.
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