Of all the logistical nightmares that have been borne out of the cock-up that is the clash between the Aviva Premiership final and England’s first test in New Zealand, the most intriguing is that at fly-half. With Owen Farrell and Stephen Myler in action domestically and George Ford needing surgery, Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani are the only two outside halves in the England squad for the first test.
So who will start? Looking at it purely in terms of form, there is no contest. Cipriani has had a year so good on the pitch that he has managed to play himself back into international contention after it seemed those bridges had been irrevocably burnt. Freddie Burns, meanwhile, has found himself benching to part-time fly-half Ryan Mills.
But Burns has been around the England squad for a while now; he is a man that Lancaster trusts. Do not underestimate how important this is – he will be familiar with the way England do things, know all the support staff, and other such important matters when touring.
Inevitably Cipriani will be the focus of intense media coverage between now and the first test, and rightly so given the acrimonious circumstances in which he left the England set-up all those years ago. Rumours of not taking training seriously and a bust-up with the then Saxons head coach – one Stuart Lancaster – means his return to the test arena is quite a story.
But this time around, there has been none of the behaviour that so soured the relationship back then; none of the showboating in training, the playboy antics off the field.
“I’ve not seen any of that behaviour,” said Lancaster. “He has been hungry to learn and very clear in his desire to be here for the right reasons. As a coach, you are watching all the time for the little cues and tell-tale signs that confirm or deny that. I have to say that so far he’s been excellent.”
Nevertheless, we should not be surprised if Lancaster makes what looks from the outside to be a bit of a curveball selection and throws Freddie Burns into the starting line-up for the first test. Despite having had a poor season, the Gloucester playmaker is a known quantity to the coach and has reportedly been performing to the levels we know he is capable of in training. Lancaster’s comments this week have hinted at such.
“He [Cipriani] is a little behind Freddie in that regard because Freddie’s had so much time and experience [training] with us over the last two years,” Lancaster said. “Danny has played well on a number of occasions this season, but there are definitely areas of his game he could do better.”
At the beginning of the season, not many England fans would have had Freddie Burns and Danny Cipriani down as the options at fly-half, but that is the hand Lancaster has been dealt. If you were Stuart Lancaster, which card would you play?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images