By Nick Cain
Chris Ashton and Danny Cipriani are like men with itchy trigger fingers who are caught in a hypnotic trance which draws them inexorably towards the button marked ‘self-destruct’. Over the last couple of weeks the two Red Rose prodigals, who had both been brought back into the fold after being named in the England pre-season training squad selected by Eddie Jones earlier this month, have had a good stab at throwing their international futures away.
Cipriani’s arrest after an off-field incident during Gloucester’s pre-season tour of Jersey which involved a tangle with a nightclub bouncer and a few police officers, one of them female, has not yet run its course.
That’s because it is the England coach who holds sway over whether to axe Cipriani from the squad for the Autumn series – as Sir Clive Woodward, hitherto a firm supporter of the Gloucester fly-half – now says he should.
In terms of a career decider what Jones does will trump everything other punishment meted out to Cipriani. So far this includes time in a police cell, a police record, £4,000 in magistrate court and Gloucester disciplinary fines, a further £250 compensation to the woman police officer bruised in the altercation, and ten hours coaching children.
The RFU’s subsequent decision to charge Cipriani with bringing the game into disrepute had a strong whiff of double jeopardy, and after being lambasted widely for pandering to the ‘hang him’ sector in the court of public opinion, it relented.
How the RFU hearing on Wednesday night took five hours to deem that the disciplinary action taken already was sufficient is hard to fathom. At least it left Cipriani free to play for his club, with Gloucester picking him to make his debut on Friday night at Kingsholm against the Dragons.
The sinner who told the police to loosen the cuffs on his ‘wrists of gold’ continued his penance by orchestrating a 40-31 victory against the Welsh side, including putting Matt Banahan over for the first try, while The Shed cheered their bad boy to the rafters.
Jones is unlikely to have joined the Kingsholm celebrations, not least because he knows that his every move regarding Cipriani will be subject to intense scrutiny.
Should Jones wish to jettison the fly-half who helped England to end their damaging run of five Test defeats on his recall for the final summer Test victory over South Africa in Cape Town, he can always use the catch-all of saying his club form did not merit selection.
However, if Cipriani is outstanding for Gloucester and the England coach drops him, he could be guilty of not only torching his side’s Autumn prospects but also of being glaringly hypocritical following his rehabilitation of serial disciplinary offenders like Dylan Hartley, Manu Tuilagi, Joe Marler, and to a lesser extent, Kyle Sinckler.
The comparison between the off-field charges faced by Cipriani and Tuilagi are unavoidable. Tuilagi was convicted at Leicester magistrates court in May 2015 of grabbing a taxi driver by the throat and pushing two women police officers in the chest after a street altercation, and fined £6,025.
Jones’ predecessor as England coach, Stuart Lancaster, took unilateral action by banning Tuilagi – who was injured at the time – from playing any part in the 2015 World Cup squad because of his conduct.
By comparison, Jones stated when he took charge that every player started with a clean slate, and he included Tuilagi in his England plans from the outset. Jones has said consistently that the Leicester centre remains in those plans despite his long battle with serial injuries, and also breaking England training camp protocol and curfews by returning in the early hours after a drinking session last year.
It is ironic that while Cipriani can state his case for England selection on the field, Ashton has forfeited that right following his seven week ban by an RFU panel for a so-called tip-tackle by the Sale wing on Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott in a pre-season match in France last weekend.
The disciplinary discrepancies following a game which left Sale coach Steve Diamond incensed by “a brutal, violent French side”, suggest that Ashton was harshly treated. While Kockott was banned for one week by a French disciplinary panel for a punch at a ruck which led to Ashton’s red mist moment, the Sale wing was slammed because of his poor disciplinary record.
Ashton’s ban, which lasts from now until a week before Jones names his Autumn squad in mid-October, puts his chances of being selected in serious jeopardy. From the footage available on the internet, though, the punishment did not fit the crime.
While Kockott was standing over him, Ashton got up, picking up one of Kockott’s legs, and used it as a lever to dump him backwards. Kockott landed on his backside and back rather than his neck or head, and was uninjured. Ashton made no attempt to tip-tackle him and then pile-drive him into the ground, which is when the most severe neck and head injuries occur.
Given Jones’ track-record for being pragmatic in his England selection policy where disciplinary issues are concerned, it would be inconsistent for him to dump Cipriani or Ashton.
Wayward sons like Cipriani and Ashton have often been their own worst enemies but they should not be judged by a harsher rule-book than other England offenders who have been given multiple chances.
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