Isn’t this how it was supposed to be? Danny Cipriani, the most gifted English fly-half of his generation, the star attraction at Twickenham, the home of rugby on these shores, writes Gareth Davies.
But sadly, for Cipriani, now 31, he wasn’t showcasing his skills in front of 82,000 supporters at Headquarters on Wednesday, on the international stage, as many predicted when he made his debut, as a natural successor to Jonny Wilkinson, in 2008.
No, the Gloucester man was in fact the Cherry and Whites’ representative at Premiership Rugby’s launch day and conspicuous by their absence were the players that had been selected to play for England at the upcoming World Cup in Japan.
For Cipriani hasn’t made the cut.
Eddie Jones has gone with Owen Farrell and George Ford as his two preferred options at ten, with Saracens’ Piers Francis and Exeter’s Henry Slade also able to fill that position in an emergency.
The omission is something that has certainly polarised opinion within the oval ball fraternity – only time will tell if Jones has made the right call.
And despite the focus now shifting onto domestic matters for Cipriani, it was obvious that England would be the hot topic.
Whilst many of the other Premiership players sat twiddling their thumbs at times, quite a crowd built around the Gloucester table, with some people almost ignorant of the fact that Johan Ackermann, the Kingsholm Director of Rugby, was present too.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Cipriani, dressed casually after the morning photo shoot in playing kit, arrived and unsurprisingly, the opening questions – then every one that followed during the next 15 minutes – focused on England.
I’ll give Cipriani a huge amount of credit now because he never shirked any line of inquiry, despite the gathered throng willing him on to reveal all about Jones and the conversations that took place between the pair.
Cipriani was measured, thoughtful and deep down, despite there being an obvious and overwhelming sense of frustration, gave the impression of respecting Jones’ call. It demonstrated a level of maturity that many, me included, had rarely seen from Cipriani before on this scale, although as the player openly admitted, his World Cup chances were slim from the start.
“I knew I was on the back foot so I went into this summer with no expectation,” said the current RPA Players’ Player of the Year.
“The only thing I could do was enjoy it. Eddie is a very strong character and he is not going to be swayed by anyone.
“I had two weeks in training, but what is a fair crack of the whip? I can’t go in and demand any time. It’s all about characters and people – Eddie is in a very high pressure situation being the England coach. His record will say that he’s done a great job and he’s put his faith in Ford and Faz and they have done well for him.
“Going into a big competition, I would have had to turn water into wine to really sway him. That’s the mindset in that position, so it would have been very difficult to do so, but I understand his decision. Do I think it is the right decision? I don’t know, but I’m here and I will support England and hope they go great.”
It was then put to Cipriani that this latest in a long line of international setbacks would be a severe test of character. However, in what was possibly the only glimpse of his frustration really coming to the fore, he was ultimately defiant in response.
“Not getting picked for a World Cup? There’s been worse things that have happened in my life,” he quipped. “That’s not a test of my mental toughness – well, I hope it’s not. For me, the mental toughness is the monotonous side of what rugby is. The close seasons are too short and all that type of thing.
“There are lots of things I could go into, but it wouldn’t be very PC to do so. Over the last 15 years, training lengths have got gradually longer over every single session and it takes its toll.
“That’s an extra 40 hours on your feet if it’s an hour every week. I don’t know the answer, but I was spoilt at the beginning when I came into a successful environment as that’s all I knew.”
He then went on to personally thank the Gloucester Director of Rugby Johan Ackermann for allowing a period of time away from the Cherry and Whites’ pre-season campaign.
Cipriani also revealed that he was refreshed due to the break and would look to help the younger players at Kingsholm.
“I’m very grateful to Johan for giving me extra time off, to refresh myself mentally, to come back reinvigorated and excited.
“This year, we have a lot of good youngsters at Gloucester. In my last seven or eight years, I have tried really hard to work with youngsters and hopefully have a good influence on them in terms of their playing. It’s a big challenge for me.”
At 31, it would be fair to say that Cipriani is at a crossroads in his career with international hopes, under Jones anyway, as good as over. So what’s next? And along with assisting up and coming players, is there a further ‘challenge’?
Cipriani feels that England rejection may help him improve as a player, with the tale of Harlequins’ Mike Brown cited as an example.
“Consistently, the last seven have incrementally got better, every year everyone says that this is the best season,” he added. “That’s what you want to have and have again – the best season and that is all you can ask for.
“You look at someone like Mike Brown who consistently plays at the top of his game. He didn’t get picked in the autumn, or maybe before, and he ended up having his best season for Quins, which is credit to him. I know how much it means to him and how much emphasis he places on playing for England so to have the best season is credit to him.
“I will give it my best this season and then assess every year. I’ve had a lot of internal growth and learnt a lot over the last 20 years. Things come up at different points in my life and I had to teach myself to be a man from ten years old. I didn’t do a great job at certain times, but who would? I was always searching for answers and guidance, but then eventually you do know the answers as they come from within and you just have to listen to it.
“I’m grateful to everyone that has helped shape me and my focus is how I can be a good example for youngsters and how I can do that. I have made mistakes and my mistakes are a little bit more public than others, but do I keep trying to learn and move forward? Yes I do.
“Does it mean I won’t make any more mistakes? Well, I will try not too, but every time I’ve had a knock I always see your faces at some point (the media). How does my season go next? The writing is on the wall for this season to make sure I do it all again.”
Another fine campaign with Gloucester during 2019-20 will certainly be of benefit to the Cherry and Whites, but just how much influence Cipriani could have exacted on the biggest stage of all will never be known – and just like water becoming wine, it would be seen as a miracle if he ever laced his boots for England again.
The Independent’s Chief Sports Writer, Gareth Davies, provides insight into the biggest sporting stories in each edition. To read more from him and the other writers at the Independent, including Tom Howe, Andrew Clayton, Craig Bratt and Noah Barco, pick up a copy from your local newsagents for just £1.50, or subscribe via https://www.indyonline.co.uk/digital-editions/