Now 24 years of age, little seems different about Danny Cipriani than when he left these shores two years ago to join the Melbourne Rebels. The same scruffy facial hair and dark eyes remain on the exterior of the man who according to Stuart Barnes, is one of the greatest talents that English rugby has ever seen.
Cipriani is back on home shores to play for the Barbarians against Australia this weekend, his first run-out at Twickenham since his starring role during England’s defeat of Ireland in the 2009 Six Nations. The week before, his potential debut against Scotland at full back had been scrapped following allegations of him being out in a nightclub just two days before his first cap. In a similar fashion, Cipriani’s early days in Melbourne with his current club were marred by stealing a bottle of vodka from behind a bar following a defeat in the opening round of last year’s Super Rugby competition, along with being dropped from his side’s tour of South Africa.
As far as Cipriani is concerned, the past, is just that. “I was happy with the playing side last season, but the negative stuff off the field seemed to be the main stories being reported back here. It’s about understanding your responsibilities as a professional athlete, which is something you forget when you’re out with your mates, but I’ve learned from it and moved on.”
Looking forward, Cipriani’s immediate focus is running out for the Barbarians against Australia this Saturday at Twickenham. In a star-studded lineup alongside four World Cup winners from last month, the former Wasp is relishing the chance to play at Twickenham for the first time since the Autumn Internationals of 2009, “It’s one of the best stadiums in the world, and one of my favourites. With the squad that’s been put together, and working with Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, I feel very fortunate to be a part of this Barbarians squad.”
Returning to Twickenham inevitably brings up the issue of Cipriani’s relationship with the English national side, from which it appeared he was forced into exile two years ago after falling out with management. “I watched the World Cup as a fan. Every time I see England play it makes me ever more keen to pull on that shirt. It really is my dream and my goal to play for England, that’s never changed. I feel like the last 12 months have past me by with playing Test rugby, not being involved in the squad, and that gives me extra focus and hunger to want to be selected. I don’t want to give anyone an excuse not to select me anymore.”
Now that Martin Johnson has gone, with the majority of his coaching staff set to follow him out the door in the coming weeks, Cipriani understands that there will be new management to impress. “With the last regime, I gave the coaches too much doubt about me as a fly-half, mainly perhaps due to the fact that I was down in Australia. I don’t want coaches to have any ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ about me as a fly-half. If I can improve all of the areas of my game, so that I’m the best 10 out there, then my part is done and it’s down to the coaches.”
The Rebels fly-half revealed that contractually he is allowed to be released for the Six Nations next year if selected, but immediately that wasn’t at the forefront of his mind. “I honestly haven’t thought about being selected, I’ve just focused on the things that I can control; my diet, my fitness, my defence are all variables that I’ve worked hard on with the coaches at the Rebels. Logistically it would be easier if I was based in the UK, but as you know I don’t tend to do things the easy way. I just have to keep putting my hand up wherever I am in the world.”
The fact is, Cipriani is actually over 10,500 miles away from the RFU. For this reason, whilst contact from Twickenham initially was consistent, the phone stopped ringing. “I had a bit of contact with Brian Smith early on, but that was it. The main people who I stayed in touch with were Shaun Edwards and Brian Ashton, who are the two people in my life who regardless of where I am have always been consistent and been there to support me.”
Looking back on the move, he has no regrets whatsoever. “The whole experience to get away from home, from England, and out of my comfort zone, has made me a better player. I had some issues off the field but I’ve accepted that and moved on. The move was purely for rugby reasons. Every coaching set-up I’ve been involved with I’ve always put in everything I’ve got and had no issues. There was no negative reason for moving to Super Rugby, it was purely to experience a different environment to make me a better player.”
“My game has definitely come on a lot, and working with John Muggleton [Rebels assistant coach] has helped my defence massively. I had 8 weeks back in England and then headed back out to Melbourne, for honestly the best pre-season I’ve ever had with any team. That bodes well for the coming season, and I’m really enjoying it down there. I think the main point to come out of the World Cup is that to be the best, it’s all about decision-making under pressure. Playing on the hard ground in the Super 15, you’re working with players who are brilliant at that, such as James O’Connor and Kurtley Beale at the Rebels, which in turn helps your development.”
His contract with the Rebels is set to run out at the end of this season. Right now, whether Danny stays in Super Rugby is another matter. Settled in Melbourne in an exciting young side, would one more season damage his chances of selection for 2015, or is now the time to come home? “It’s still early doors regarding what I do at the end of next season. Super 15 in my eyes is the best league in the world, and I’ve played in the Premiership and Heineken Cup so I feel I can say that with some confidence. I’m playing with some great players and friends and am excited about the upcoming season.”
Whatever he decides, Cipriani knows one thing for certain. Watching England play and not pulling on that jersey has hurt him, whatever people may think of his dedication to his country. “My long-term goal is to be involved in the squad come the Rugby World Cup in 2015, and to be the first-choice number 10 in that squad.” Talent cannot be bought or ignored at international level. With Cipriani, his return to the national side is not about ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’, but when.
by Ben Coles