IF you judge Danny Cipriani purely on rugby performance, then what he has produced for Gloucester this season means he has to go to Japan – even if it means Eddie Jones taking three fly-halves.
However, if Jones follows the same pattern as previous England coaches, then the 2019 World Cup squad will have only two fly-halves. If that is the case, then right now my second choice behind Owen Farrell would be Cipriani.
That is very tough on George Ford, but the reality is that although Farrell can play inside-centre it is not his best position, and the same applies to Cipriani playing full-back. They are all first and foremost 10s, and at the moment Cipriani is the best player for England to bring off the bench because his ability to make something out of nothing trumps Ford.
Ford is usually very good if his pack is on the front foot, but when the game is tighter Cipriani’s vision is broader. You see him chipping those 20 yarders behind the defensive screen for the wings to run onto – or making that ‘pass into the future’ like the one Charlie Sharples ran onto in the opening game of the season.
It reminds you that he is capable of operating on a different level. Sharples joked recently in an interview that he said to Cipriani beforehand, “you throw it, and I’ll catch it” – but if he’d dropped it, I can guarantee he would have got a mouthful.
Ford has been playing in a Leicester side which went on a downward spiral this season, and he is a senior player who, along with others, were unable to get them up the Premiership table to a European Cup place.
By comparison Cipriani has had a key part in taking Gloucester into the top four through being given a hands-on role to shape the attack. He can be challenged by his teammates, and it sounds similar to the conversations that myself, Stuart Barnes, Simon Halliday, Mike Catt and Phil de Glanville had during our time at Bath.
We were continually talking and re-booting our mindset – for instance, if we shouted “wide-wide” it meant you got the ball out to the flanks fast. There was a lot of chat, a lot of counter-attacking, and a lot of chasing accurate kicks.
As old-fashioned as it seems, that’s what is going on at Gloucester now – and it is good to hear that it is still clear and present in the game.
When Cipriani was young and fearless at Wasps I remember hearing that in practice he would start running towards the touchline and then bounce a pass backwards through his legs so that it came off the ground straight into the arms of a player on his inside.
The thing about Cipriani is that he questions a lot of things, because that’s how his mind works. It’s a bit like a chess grand-master seeing patterns. You see the pattern and you make the next move – it’s instinctive, nature over nurture, and you can’t coach it.
I was a bit like that myself, and I know it can get you labelled as a troublemaker, but it is only trying to get other players to see what you see.
Some players have a footballing ability which enables them to scan the field, and some of them have the pace to get there, while others don’t.
Cipriani still has some wheels, and it’s great to see a player who will push outside the structure set down by coaches. From there other players begin to read his body language, and then the whole team can take advantage.
The issue for Cipriani with England is that they play a more structured game than Gloucester, with well-instilled patterns. Farrell understands those patterns very well, and he is the best fly-half that England have because his presence has an affect not just on his own team, but the opposition.
Farrell’s whole game has improved, and his attacking in particular. Even so, it was a bit off at times this season. Every player gets a bit tight when they stop doing what they do naturally, and go into their shell. That’s what happened to Farrell in the Six Nations.
However, Cipriani off the bench is a tantalising thought, especially with players like Henry Slade, Elliot Daly and Jonny May playing off him. With 20 to 30 minutes remaining that’s an attractive proposition!
I don’t think Cipriani could have played any better this season to get himself on the plane to Japan. His two player of the season awards shows what he has done, and it doesn’t get better than winning the RPA players’ player.
Cipriani’s tackling no longer stands out as a huge flaw in his game, and this season he and Ford have had a similar tackle success rate of 79 per cent, compared to Farrell’s at around 90 per cent.
Where England could be stymied is if Farrell is injured, because his pressure goal-kicking is in a class of its own – and although Ford finished as the Premiership’s top points scorer it is a whole different story kicking in the pressure cooker of a World Cup.
Farrell is a proven international goal-kicker, and England would not quite be the same with either Ford or Cipriani taking over.
Another difference is that as one of the senior players Ford expects his teammates to conform more, whereas Cipriani would be challenging most things.
However, instead of people rolling their eyes at Cipriani, they should think twice when his asks whether they have thought of this, or that. Why he has worked so well at Gloucester is that when you give a talented player accountability and responsibility, then blaming team-mates simply does not work – you cannot moan because it’s your responsibility.
Cipriani has had to learn that, and for Johan Ackermann to agree to have him in that role was not just very enlightened, it was a master-stroke. But I’m not a coach, and how quickly he can come into a squad and not cause disruption, only Jones knows.
The classic reaction from Farrell when Cipriani kicked the ball that set up May’s try in the third Test against South Africa in Cape Town last summer, says it all. I’d love it if sometimes May, Daly and company asked Farrell why they aren’t getting more ball.
The questions about Cipriani that have to be asked are straightforward. Is he good enough to play for England? We all know the answer – he cruises in. Next, can he be embedded without disruption? If the answer is no, then it is difficult.
The challenge is whether he can except the culture, and improve the culture. What would be unfair is if Cipriani didn’t get a couple of months in the World Cup training squad to prove that he is worth a place – and if in the process he is challenging them to attack in different ways, that could be a plus rather than a negative.
In some ways Farrell and Cipriani run similar systems at fly-half, and maybe there’s a bit of a clash of personality. What is important is that it is not about Cipriani taking over, it is about him being an addition, and bringing something valuable.
My last thought is that we should not measure Cipriani against Farrell this weekend because Saracens are a better side than Gloucester – and our judgement of them as players should not rest on a head-to-head unless the teams are equally matched.
JEREMY GUSCOTT / Photo: Getty Images
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