After much speculation, it has been finally confirmed that Danny Cipriani will be moving to the Melbourne Rebels at the end of the season. In one stroke he is ending his international prospects for the near future at least, longer if Martin Johnson has his way. It is a story which has caused huge ripples through English rugby and there have been plenty of people ready to lay into Cipriani for his decision. But is this really fair?
Consider these individuals: Dan Carter, Luke McAlister, Carlos Spencer, Aaron Mauger, Byron Kelleher, Chris Jack, Carl Hayman, Jerry Collins, (deep breath), Butch James, Brent Russell, Ricky Januarie, Jean De Villiers, Francois Steyn, Andre Vos, Joe Van Niekerk, Jaco Van Der Westhuysen, Chris Latham, Peter Hewat, Jim Williams, Rocky Elsom. What do all these players have in common?
They have all, at some stage of their careers, for a variety of reasons and lengths of time, crossed the equator to see how the other half live. Some, like Latham, came late in their careers to gain new experiences and secure a bumper paycheque before swapping the boots and gumshield for pipe and slippers. Some, like Carter, sought a sabbatical to take themselves out of a comfort zone. Some, like Januarie and Steyn, may have got frustrated trying in vain to nail down a regular international starting spot. Quite a few came purely for the wedge.
You can see where I’m going with this. The majority of them have been welcomed back by their respective unions with open arms and have gone on to resume an international career. Elsom was rewarded with the captaincy. Plenty of them returned better players, some stagnated.
So how is this any different to Cipriani heading the other way? Freddie Michalak did it recently and he is back in the France squad and playing well. The suggestions that Cipriani is calling his entire international future into doubt is both hypocritical and sensationalist. He is a professional player. If he likes the package he is being offered in Australia, he is well within his rights to take it, whether you like his motivations or not. A change of scene could be just what he needs to rediscover that spark which had us all drooling uncontrollably not so long ago. And if he returns an improved player, I’m sure we will put our misgivings to one side and welcome him back, the same people currently condemning him will be praising him to the rafters for a mature and enlightened decision.
But while the criticism of the principles behind his decision and the veiled threats regarding his future grate somewhat, we are well within our rights to criticise the decision itself. This could be well wide of the mark but it does have the feel of a disillusioned kid going off in a strop.
Let’s look at the context in which Cipriani made his decision. Here is a guy who has been tipped for the top from a young age. He was a child prodigy, hailed by many as the brightest young talent England have produced in a generation. He walked into any team he wanted and was the centre of attention. He spent several years hearing nothing other than how good he is. A European Cup winner at 18, he then dominated half a season of Premiership rugby, was called into the England side and produced a sublime performance on debut.
Then his first piece of bad luck as he badly broke an ankle. Since then, little has gone right for him. Ill-advisedly brought back early from injury, he lost his England place and, as he battles injuries and poor form, has found himself shunted to full back for the Saxons and his club on occasions. For the first time, he has found himself on the outside, having to prove himself and fight for his place. It is a new experience for him.
And he has run. Rather than stay and fight, he has fled for faraway shores, the sporting equivalent of storming out of the house to the bottom of the garden to sulk. For many of his critics this will only serve to confirm what they have been saying – that he is only out for number 1 and has no interest in the collective. And therefore, good riddance to him.
There is another interpretation to these events though. Cipriani would have to be a mindless optimist to believe that he currently figures in Johnson’s plans for the 2011 World Cup. There is something about the youngster which makes Johnno’s brow even more furrowed, the eyes even darker than usual. Cipriani’s burning ambition is to play for England, to be the best fly half in the world, and he saw no light at the end of this particular tunnel. There is the sense that, no matter what he does, Johnson is not interested. So he could stay, get more and more disillusioned and potentially waste two years of his career. Or he could go away, experience new perspectives and environments, improve and mature himself on and off the pitch and come back better equipped mentally to take what he sees as his rightful place at the heart of the England team. Rather than seeing his rejection as a curse, he has turned it into an opportunity which could have significant long-term benefits for all concerned.
Whichever side you take, there is something rather sad about how Danny Cipriani’s career has progressed in the past two years. Arrogant or misunderstood, dedicated professional or celebrity, it cannot be denied that here is a very special, but very lost talent. Whatever it takes to prevent this talent from being wasted should not be begrudged and something had to happen to end his current stagnation. Anyone with the interests of England rugby at heart will harbour a desire for him to dominate down under and return to fulfil his rare gifts. Far from ending his international career, the move could be the making of him. I think we can safely say that we have not heard the last of Danny Cipriani.
By Stuart Peel