Danny Cipriani: The Man to Lead English Rugby Back to the Top?

Paul MurphyCorrespondent ISeptember 20, 2012

Ghosting through Irish defence
Ghosting through Irish defenceShaun Botterill/Getty Images

In 2008, me and my father made the short journey to London to watch my beloved Irish side go up against an English side in turmoil. 

I felt Ireland would win, based on our recent run of success against our arch rivals, and the discontent in the English camp. I was even more sure of our success when I saw the wild child of English rugby, Danny Cipriani, would be tasked with dictating the tempo.

Less than a week earlier, he was dropped from the team after been spotted in a nightclub just two days before England played Scotland. But my confidence was misplaced, he played brilliantly. His decision-making was superb, as was his kicking but what stood out was his ability to unleash the backs.

With pace to burn and deft hands, he held tacklers until the last minute and put others away. He was just 20 years old and seemed destined for a bright future. But somehow, five years later, he has just seven caps.

Where did it all go wrong? And all these years later, could he be the answer to England’s problems?

Rugby players are becoming increasingly like their footballing counterparts, particularly in England. Long gone is the amateur ethos where players were down-to-earth and humble. Now we are seeing increasing numbers of prima donnas, who spend as much time in the gossip columns as the sports pages.

In many ways, Cipriani followed what Gavin Henson started, and took it to new levels. A good-looking chap with a flamboyant game, he became an overnight celebrity. He had it all. The bright future, the keys to the England team, the model girlfriend, and then it all went horribly wrong.

He suffered a dislocated ankle and rushed back into action. He seemingly spent more time in nightclubs and enjoying the high life than honing his craft. He fought with teammates and lashed out at critics. His form suffered, and he began believing the hype rather than the facts. His career stalled, and many felt a move away from the bright lights of London would allow him to refocus on rugby.

Most people were shocked when he chose to move halfway around the world to sign for the newly-minted Melbourne Rebels.

While the move ruled him out of the 2011 World Cup, many saw it as a good move. His style was suited to the free-flowing nature of Super Rugby, and he would be miles away from the British paparazzi and the nightclubs he frequented, or so we thought.

Problems began before he even played a game. He immersed himself in the social scene and had numerous problems with discipline. But despite these issues and his usual weak defence, he sparkled intermittently for the Rebels. He looked like he was finding form before he cut off his nose to spite his face.

A couple more high-profile, late-night adventures saw him dropped from the squad and left at home when his teammates went on tour. The Rebels had had enough, and when they secured some other high-profile signings last winter, his time was up. He was released from his contract early to return home.

And so he returns home to the Sale Sharks not as a prodigal son, but as a lost man. His reputation in tatters, he had little interest from the big sides and joined a club who have been off the pace for years. In many ways, this is his last chance to reach for the top.

Will he go the Gavin Henson route and have his career peter out, or will he go the Gordan D’Arcy route and work his way back to the top.

As a rugby fan, I hope he he regains form, as he has all the skills that excite fans.

But I don’t know if Bryan Redpath can succeed where esteemed rugby men like Warren Gatland, Ian McGeechan, Shaun Edwards, Martin Johnson and Rod Macqueen have all failed. Will the lure of Manchester nightlife be too much for his inner party animal to ignore? 

If he can get back to the top, England could really use him.

The current English side are gaining momentum but they are solid rather than spectacular.

A good scrum and solid line-out provide lots of good attacking ball. They have a balanced back-row to both breach the gain line and compete at the breakdown to provide quick ball.

They have a couple of nippy scrumhalves with good passes, and some brutes in the centre to do damage in midfield. Add to that two great strike runners in Ben Foden and Chris Ashton and you have the makings of a good side. But something is missing.

They lack creativity. In the last year, they have only scored two tries off phase rugby or set-piece ball.

Owen Farrell has a great boot and is a good defender but tends to be overly conservative and is a product of the boring 10-man rugby played by Saracens.

Toby Flood is better at putting his teammates away but simply isn't a top-level No. 10.

How they could use someone with the all-round ability of Cipriani.

He would be the X factor England clearly miss, and they are so solid they could probably accommodate him in their defensive structure, if only as a speed bump. Hell, Ronan O’Gara did to the tune of 124 caps, three Lions tours and two Heineken Cups

If he could conquer his inner demons to claim the England fly-half shirt, I believe they could be a serious force again.

But I don’t hold too much hope for Cipriani given his myriad of issues and weak mental fortitude.