DANNY Cipriani’s club form this season has been pretty impressive, and it is a deserved selection that he is part of the England squad to tour South Africa next month.
It does not seem as if Owen Farrell and George Ford have caught the headlines playing for their clubs this season, Farrell because he’s been injured for part of it, and Ford because Leicester have hardly set the world alight.
By comparison Cipriani and Wasps have made waves regularly with their up-and-at-them approach, and he has showed that he has the skill set to play on the gain-line and open teams up. Whether it’s been dribbling the ball between the small gap separating a couple of defenders, a sublime long pass, a disguised pop pass, pulling the ball back to a second attacking line, or taking the gap himself and showing that he is still relatively quick, Cipriani has shown some great touches throughout the season.
Cipriani has had to bide his time to get another chance with England. In the Stuart Lancaster era he attacked well but was left out because his defence was not good enough. His worst attacking performance is usually good, but he had that Achilles heel in the tackle, and when Eddie Jones arrived after the 2015 World Cup he already had his fly-halves in place with Farrell and Ford.
Since then he’s had a look at Henry Slade – who is seen as a bit inconsistent at 10 and looks more like a centre – and this season also at the Harlequins youngster, Marcus Smith. Slade joins Cipriani in the squad, but Smith was seen by Jones as not quite ready to face the Springboks.
It is a great boost for Cipriani because not being selected for higher honours when you have been playing as well as he has at club level is a bit of a kick in the teeth. It’s good news that we don’t hear as much about his off-field lifestyle as we used to, and let’s hope that the whispers that he can be difficult to manage – and that other players find him difficult – are unfounded, or are behind him now that he is back with England.
While Cipriani does not make many mistakes in attack, he still makes a few in defence. However, if you look at Farrell’s tackle completion rate it’s not great either. Farrell’s other contributions mask it, although you can be sure that the opposition will have clocked it.
Cipriani deserves his chance, and he sees the game differently to Farrell and Ford. An England fly-half stocktake tells us that Farrell is now the equal of Ford in attack. Ford has not improved much physically, and in terms of development as a 10 he’s been pretty much at a standstill.
Ford scored for Leicester at the end of last weekend’s win at Sale, but he needed to do that more often to become the best attacking fly-half in the Premiership. He hasn’t managed that this season, and Smith has seemed more of a threat.
Can Cipriani, now 30, do it at international level again? He can if he realises that if he wants to play for England there has to be a lot of give and take from him. Test sides like England are pretty structured for the first three phases, but all the centres England are taking to South Africa should be able to click with Cipriani.
Ben Te’o understands good support lines from his time in Rugby League, and because Alex Lozowski and Slade have both played at 10 as well as centre they should also have no difficulty linking with Cipriani.
With Cipriani as the catalyst, and the others reacting quickly to him, England need to rediscover the will, the feel, and the instinct, to give it a go.
However, with three Tests and no midweek games, it will be difficult for Cipriani to break into the England starting line-up. That said, if Jones starts with Ford at 10 and Farrell at 12, then Cipriani has a chance of being on the bench, especially as he can play full-back as well as fly-half.
I’d like to think that Jones is taking Cipriani with the intention of seeing him play, otherwise there is not much point. He has to challenge Cipriani, because good players normally respond to a challenge, and he has been waiting on the sidelines for this chance.
It will be hard to judge Cipriani if he plays for the England XV against the Barbarians at the end of this month because they are a scratch team. I would go the whole hog and pick him on the bench for the first Test against South Africa, and give him some decent playing time.
In Jones’ shoes I’d be saying to Cipriani, “if you think that you’re that good then show me that you are”– especially as any decent attacking player likes the dry, hard, fast pitches England will find in South Africa.
What sets him apart has been his ability to create space for himself and for others, and compared to Ford and Farrell I’d imagine he is the quickest. I don’t think that Danny has ever had snap acceleration, but his top end speed is reasonable, and in training he can see where he is compared to eight or nine years ago.
We can say that Cipriani has matured because we don’t read about his off-field life as much as we used to, and he’s certainly matured as a player, learning from all those he’s played with.
Foremost among he’s learned from is Jimmy Gopperth at Wasps, who is so consistent that he must be a joy to play alongside. Playing with Gopperth must be like having a big brother in the same team.
Above all, Cipriani thrives on the pressure of backing himself to find a gap or deliver that perfect pass. He sees the opportunies so quickly that sometimes other players cannot keep up, and it is frustrating when they do not read it – but Cipriani needs to put it behind him quickly when he’s playing for England and move onto the next challenge.
Now Cipriani’s been picked for the tour put him on the bench against South Africa straightaway, and find out if he’s still got the taste for the international game, and the means to deliver.
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