Saturday, 20 February 2010

A Tale of Two Fly Halves

Danny Cipriani has confirmed that he is venturing down under and joining the newly formed Melbourne Rebels next season.

Shock horror.

Well there goes his England career.  Or does it?

"I'm ignoring you."
"No I'm ignoring YOU!"

Cipriani's move means he will not feature in next year's World Cup.  That is a given.  England manager Martin Johnson said he wouldn't select the fly-half if he relocated to the Southern Hemisphere.  For one thing the scouting missions would be total pain as Johnno really struggles for leg room on long haul flights.

Then again, Cipriani doesn't really have an England career at the moment, does he?

Johnson hasn't picked Cipriani since November 2008.  So what's all the fuss?  The fuss is because Danny Cipriani rapidly became the poster boy for English rugby and was branded "rugby's answer to David Beckham".  And rather hastily too I might add.

The Wasps number 10 burst onto the international scene in 2008's Six Nations but caused just as many waves off the pitch.  When it came to his rugby, Danny only really had one great game for England (against Ireland in the Six Nations of the same year) and a couple of great performances in the Heineken Cup. If there was ever a player to be over hyped, then Cipriani was that man.

Controversially, the fly-half was dropped for "inappropriate behaviour" when he stumbled out of a night club at midnight a few days before the Scotland game in the 2008 Six Nations.  A horrific ankle injury in May 2008 then put Cipriani's international ambitions on hold.  Since then he's been in and out of the England squad, demoted to the Saxons and been woefully inconsistent for Wasps.

And then came the celebrity girlfriend, the ample Kelly Brook. Soon enough, Danny was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.  Do you think Martin Johnson was impressed to see his recovering fly-half wining and dining his new love interest in all the tabloids?  Nah, me neither.

Expect to see plenty more of this when Cipriani moves to Melbourne

Will Carling revealed on his blog last week that he turned down the offer of managing Cipriani with a view to getting him back into the England squad.  Why? 

Carling said: "The main reason I decided not to go ahead is that I do not believe that Danny's focus is on playing for England."

So what is Danny focussed on?  Topping up his tan in Oz and hitting the town with his model girlfriend?

Is it any wonder that Martin Johnson has left Cipriani out in the cold?

England manager Johnson has been heavily criticised for his selection decisions, and now the finger of frustration is being pointed firmly at his first choice fly-half, Jonny Wilkinson, after a couple of sub-par displays in this year's Six Nations.

So what has Wilkinson got that Cipriani hasn't?  Why is Jonny still in favour? 

Unlike an on form Cipriani, Jonny certainly isn't the most inventive number 10.  It's not often that the Toulon fly-half dazzles us with his running and opens up the England backline. 

The answer is their attitudes.  Wilkinson and Cipriani couldn't be more different if they tried.  Rewind a couple of years and Danny was either splashed across the tabloids or accidentally blurting out the F-word on a live broadcast. Wilkinson was living the life of a rugby hermit in Northumberland and robotically practising his place kicks for 23:59 hours per day.  When he wasn't injured, of course.

The pair do have some things in common though.  Wilkinson has suffered so much damage since the 2003 World Cup final that he singlehandedly kept all the BUPA hospitals in Newcastle open before he left for Toulon.  Cipriani's ankle injury was so bad it needed pinning in several places.  The contrast comes in what the pair did during their recuperation:  Wilkinson learnt to speak French (forward planning perhaps?) and got to grips with the acoustic guitar.  Cipriani jetted off to the Caribbean with Kelly Brook and was papped "frolicking" in the sea. 

But Cipriani's move to Australia got me thinking.  Wilkinson's career was going nowhere fast at Newcastle as he kept picking up injury after injury.  After 12 years at the club, the fly-half took the decision to jump across the channel and pull on the Toulon shirt.  Of course, the €700,000 a year salary didn't hurt. 

Yet more points for the kicking machine

At the time of his move, Wilkinson said:
"I hope it will give me the games to rebuild an international career.  I haven't played and so I haven't figured for England and I want that to change."

And change it did.  Jonny soon became the leading points scorer in the Top 14 and reclaimed his England shirt.

So what of Cipriani?  Speaking of his switch to Melbourne, he said:
"In the short term, it might not be the best thing for my England career.  My main reason was to develop myself as a player and come back and play at 10 for England."

Hmm, that sounds rather familiar.

With the English media off his back and a chance to rebuild his confidence and improve his game at a new club, I think Cipriani will prosper in Melbourne just as Jonny has in Toulon.  Under the guidance of Melbourne head coach, former Australia boss Rod Maqueen, I think Cipriani will return a stronger and more settled fly-half. 

You never know, he might even come back playing like Matt Giteau.  (Here's hoping anyway).

Let's just hope that Will Carling's assessment of the fallen poster boy of England rugby wasn't right after all.

Good luck in Melbourne Danny.  Just don't forget you have the potential to be a star.
And when I say that, I mean on the rugby pitch.

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