We all have them don’t we? You know, those friends who we’ve been lifelong friends with. Actually in my case I lack the luxury of friends, instead I printed off Jonny Wilkinson’s face, stuck it on a rugby ball and called it ‘Gilbert’. Back to the point- those friends who had we not met them in childhood and become accustomed to their wayward ways, we’d probably turn our noses up at them if we were to meet them now. These are the type of people who generally end up performing an embarrassing act at a party and when faced with looks of disdain, you find it difficult to exactly pinpoint these bosom buddy’s strengths.
Well, Danny Cipriani is English rugby’s version of this difficult friend. Writing this article may well prove challenging as I find it difficult to decide why exactly I like him so much despite his well reported flaws, both on and off the pitch. Should we as English rugby fans welcome him back with open arms, meet him at Heathrow and massage his shoulders in the car on the way up to Salford?
One argument is that Cipriani has received rough treatment by both the game and the press in this country. Cast your minds back to the glory days of his emergence. My thoughts instantly revert back to an England team and Premiership lacking any type of creativity.Cipriani offered vibrancy, in a way a banana would do in ration-card Britain. His style of play before that infamous injury, was exciting from a purist point of view. He played on the gain-line, threw flat passes bringing his team mates into dangerous positions and had a knack of breaking defensive lines.
He was outstanding before his injury, but yet still had a point to prove, and that’s where I think things started to go wrong. Here was a young man who had the sport in this country at his feet but what wasn’t obviously clear to him was that this was all conditional. Firstly the press, as they so often have a knack of doing, built Cipriani up before he had actually really achieved anything significant that matched his undoubted talent. It would be ludicrous to suggest that this shouldn’t or wouldn’t affect Cipriani’s hubris; it certainly would mine. Secondly, this was all fine until he started to conflict with the traditional spirit of the game and highlight the still uneasy status of professionalism and commercialism within rugby. People became wise that there was a vacuum between the reported skill of this player with the actual stage of his rugby development, and this was far too wide to allow any type of tolerance of his off field antics.
The old guard of rugby were simultaneously disgusted and fearful that in Cipriani they had a poster boy for a progressive stage of professionalism, one that mixed with celebrity status. The fact that Cipriani seemed to revel in the limelight was too much for the RFU. I believe that very little support or advice was on offer for Cipriani evident through Martin Johnson’s tenureship who in effect sent him to rugby’s version of that tourist hotspot- Siberia. Now those reading this might think I so far have given Cipriani an easy ride, and not highlighted the many misdemeanours that lead figures such as Johnson to resort to isolating Cipriani and that nearly led the Melbourne Rebels to rethink their gamble. I quite agree, I haven’t highlighted them, because they are so blatantly obvious and in the back of all our minds. He obviously has his faults, these we readily picked upon and there the RFU had a scapegoat.
So the problem child returns, this time to Manchester and I believe Steve Diamond, a shrewd man with a 5 year plan, knows exactly what he’s getting. I hope Cipriani, with the benefit of hindsight and gaining maturity, will avoid the temptations Manchester provides WAGS and footballers. But that’s not to say I want him to change his personality for the benefit of others. It’s time that rugby started judging him on his game, a game that I believe lacks many dimensions (especially a defensive one), despite glimpses of attacking genius. So no, Owen Farrell shouldn’t be too worried about his shirt on the international stage, but that’s not to say things won’t change. I have a feeling though, opinions will be based on who we like the most, regardless of form.