Stuart Lancaster’s decision to omit Sale Sharks fly-half Danny Cipriani from England’s 2015 Rugby World Cup squad could be a defining moment in his coaching career.
There remains a groundswell of support for the maverick playmaker, who impressed on his recent outings for the Red Rose against the Barbarians and France on the back of another impressive season in the Aviva Premiership.
Cipriani returned to the international fold earlier this year rehabilitated after a six-year exile; a more mature man, a better decision-maker, and ultimately a much-improved player, allowing him to usurp Northampton’s Stephen Myler to become England’s third-choice 10.
There is a consensus that Rugby World Cup squads – as in other sports – should contain the best players available to a nation to improve their chances of winning major trophies – something England have not done since 2011.
It is a notion that seems to be lost on Lancaster, who refuses to relax the overseas selection policy to allow Toulon star Steffon Armitage – one of the world’s best flankers in the last few years – to return from his international exile, but is happy to select a centre for the biggest tournament in England’s history with just 70 minutes of international experience and less than a year of club rugby behind him. How many times can he get it wrong?
That he chose to name just Greater Manchester-born duo George Ford and Owen Farrell as his out-and-out fly-halves in a 14-man back division is a huge gamble – the norm is to take three.
Many would argue that Cipriani missed out because Lancaster chose four centres, including former rugby league star Sam Burgess who is untested at the highest level, as well as three wingers and two full-backs.
Yes, young Exeter Chiefs back Henry Slade – listed in the squad as a centre – is adept at 10, and Saracens full-back Alex Goode could do a job if required, but would you throw them the keys of a Ferrari on the most difficult of circuits just because they’ve done a few laps with one on Gran Turismo?
Understandably, fans of the 27-year-old are gutted and criticism of the England management has already started with players and coaches wading into the debate.
Former England boss Sir Clive Woodward, the man who guided the Red Rose to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 admitted he would have selected three fly-halves, and would have selected Cipriani.
Writing in his Daily Mail column on Friday, Woodward said: “He is 27, the perfect age to bring real experience to this team in the most important position.
“He’s a gold medal-winning fly-half who played brilliantly for England against Ireland under Brian Ashton in the Six Nations way back in 2008. But he fell out first with Ashton and then with Martin Johnson’s regime, and never seemed to get a fair chance under Stuart Lancaster.
“Cipriani should have been playing more on England’s tours and just had to start in the last Six Nations, which was Lancaster’s big chance to find out about certain players.”
Unsurprisingly, Sale Sharks director of rugby Steve Diamond, who has helped Cipriani transform his game also believes England are going into the Rugby World Cup missing the best “gamechanger” in the sport and Lancaster has made the wrong decision.
Diamond said: “Whenever he came from the bench, he has done fantastically well.
“If you want someone to come off the bench and have an impact then there is no better player. There are not many players who possess that game-changing ability.
“It is their decision but it looks to me like they have got it wrong.”
Despite having most of his well-documented off-field issues well behind him, there are also those who believe that Cipriani is in the same group as much-maligned hooker Dylan Hartley, who was excluded because of his poor on-field disciplinary issues. The coaches keep a close eye on them, but they’re not ready to fully trust them.
If anything, he hasn’t had a fair crack, aside from the non-cap game at the end of May when England thrashed the Barbarians 73-12. The Sharks man controlled the game at Twickenham, scoring two tries and landing all 11 attempts from the tee on his way to an impressive 33-point haul and the man of the match award.
That outstanding performance, against a team of star names should have earned him at least 40 minutes in one of the two warm-up matches against France, but his arrest after the Barbarians game and the possibility of a drink-drive charge after crashing his Mercedes in Fulham continues to hang over him after he was re-bailed until November.
Sure, he remains on standby should injuries necessitate a call-up, but England will miss his creativity off the bench – described as “X-factor” by many, including Woodward.
In the highly intensive, ultra attritional environment of Test rugby, which increases due to the quick turnaround during rugby’s showpiece tournament, Cipriani has shown he could have made a huge impact.
He may have been given just 48 minutes in the two warm-up matches against France – both at full-back – but he was outstanding in reinvigorating England’s backline in Paris and scored a try as they produced a late surge in defeat at the Stade de France.
Despite his obvious disappointment, Cipriani’s magnanimous open response, posted to his official social media accounts after the squad announcement was confirmed on Thursday afternoon, proved just how far he has come.
He said: “Of course, I would have liked more time to state my case, and am very disappointed not to make the squad. I’ve worked hard and developed as a player in the last 10 weeks, and did all I could.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the camp and fully understand the route the coaches have gone down. I wouldn’t be a true competitor if I said I agreed, as we all believe in ourselves. But I had a long way to make up as the squad has been building since 2012.
“I’ve had open conversations with Stuart and the coaches the whole time and learnt a lot from them and enjoyed my time. It’s just the start of my journey.”
Whether Cipriani’s omission turns out to be a master stroke or a terrible faux pas will become clearer as England negotiate a tricky pool featuring Six Nations rivals Wales, Rugby Championship winners Australia and Pacific Nations Cup champions Fiji – all top 10-ranked teams, as well as Uruguay.
It’s not just a pool of death, it’s more like an ocean of death, and to go through that without Cipriani just feels like the latest in a long line of mistakes by England coaches.
Image courtesy of BT Sport via YouTube, with thanks.