September 21, 2018
Increasingly Danny Cipriani looks fated to be a quiz answer for years to come. Name the most gifted English sportsman of his generation who never played in a major tournament? Not since English football regularly chose to ignore Matt Le Tissier in the 1990s has there been a more baffling selectorial omission.
Le Tissier won only eight caps while the more prosaic Carlton Palmer won 18. Cipriani has started only five Tests in the past decade and has never featured at a World Cup. Talent writes its own cheques (even in these contactless days) but it still requires a coach to endorse them.
Eddie Jones sometimes gives the impression he would prefer to pick Danny Baker at No 10 rather than hand Cipriani the keys on a consistent basis
This, let’s be clear, is every international coach’s prerogative. Gifted magicians do not always float the narrow boats of career pragmatists. Carlos Spencer played far less often for New Zealand than he might have done; he still won more caps than the supreme Mark Ella did for Australia. The Rob Andrew v Stuart Barnes debate still occasionally resurfaces a mere 30 years on. When push comes to shove, many in rugby will instinctively prefer reliability to edge-of-the-seat uncertainty.
In Cipriani’s case, Jones is in danger of alienating entire swathes of the English rugby public. No one is suggesting Owen Farrell and George Ford are not fine players deserving of their England places and potentially influential figures in Japan next year. But given Cipriani was the man in possession of the fly-half jersey in England’s last Test, delivered the lovely grubber kick for the winning try against South Africa in Cape Town and has been instrumental in his new club Gloucester’s unbeaten start to the season, something does not entirely add up.
Jones’s insistence that Cipriani’s off-field disciplinary hiccup in Jersey in the summer has nothing to do with his omission from the training squad meeting up in Bristol on Sunday makes it seem odder still. In Jones’s judgment Farrell and Ford are his top two fly-halves while Cipriani “is probably third or fourth choice”.
Ouch. How is that meant to boost the latter’s confidence? Clearly that is not the intended aim: Jones generally prefers sticks to carrots and is still seeking improvements in Cipriani’s work rate and defence.
He also argues that, with limited training time available in Bristol, there is little to be gained by having a third fly-half who will naturally reduce the number of on-field minutes of the other two. “Competition breeds hunger,” murmured Jones at Twickenham. “Over the next 12 months some players are going to rise and some are going to fall.” And some, as far as Cipriani fans are concerned, will be treated more favourably than others.
Even when former players of the stature of Brian O’Driscoll take to social media to express their surprise it, perversely, combines to make the 30-year-old’s task even harder. Jones absolutely loathes the hype that surrounds a player whose goalkicking is nothing like as sure as Farrell’s and, instinctively, is less of a company man than Ford. The latter was outstanding for Leicester at Wasps on Sunday but if there is a contest going on for sumptuous passing this season then Cipriani deserves recognition. Short, long, high, low … in terms of keeping defenders guessing, the relocated Wasp has been a total joy to watch.
All of which leads to one inescapable conclusion: joy is not Jones’s priority. Cipriani, it would seem, simply does not fit into his coach’s vision of what a World Cup-winning squad look like.
Reading between the lines, with Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi rushed back into the squad with conspicuous haste, and Worcester’s Ben Te’o named despite not having played in the Premiership this season, Jones may yet go for the alternative option of naming both his power-runners in the centre, switching Farrell to 10 and inviting Ford to slice and dice tiring defences later on.
Alex Lozowski, Henry Slade and Elliot Daly can all provide rare footballing ability and pace and none come with Cipriani’s colourful off-field back catalogue. And yet. Earlier this month in Newcastle, Jones was talking about how he was still looking for match-winners capable of supplying the spark that can transform decent teams into something special. Cipriani, as demonstrated in South Africa during June, falls into that category and, as such, remains a talent worth persevering with.