May 10, 2018 / 9:21 PM / 11 days ago

Rugby - Cipriani offered last stool in the corner of last-chance saloon

LONDON (Reuters) - There is no “I” in team but there are three in Danny Cipriani and that has always been the issue for a player whose ability should have earned him a century of England caps but whose attitude has left him invariably on the outside looking in.

FILE PHOTO: Rugby Union - Premiership - Bath Rugby vs Wasps - The Recreation Ground, Bath, Britain - December 29, 2017 Wasps' Danny Cipriani Action Images/Matthew Childs/File Photo

After a decade of being the best player but the worst team mate at every club he was involved in, Cipriani has been thrown an international lifeline by Eddie Jones, 10 years after blasting on to the scene as the future of English rugby.

On Thursday he was named in the England squad to tour South Africa next month, and though he faces a tough battle to force himself into the team and secure a slot in the World Cup squad, it is an opportunity he undoubtedly has the talent to take.

His ability, however, has never been an issue. It is everything else that he brings that has meant he has managed only 14 caps and four starts since being first picked by Brian Ashton as a 20-year-old.

The first weeks of his international career in the 2008 Six Nations proved something of a template for everything that was to follow.

After two appearances off the bench he was selected for his starting debut against Scotland only to be dropped after being photographed outside a nightclub in the early hours.

He eventually made his first start against Ireland and was sensational and after the ruthlessly efficient Jonny Wilkinson years, England finally appeared to have a flyhalf with a creative talent to match anyone in the world.

However, an horrific ankle injury kept him out of action for months and he was off the pace in his England return under new coach Martin Johnson in the 2008 November internationals - the last time he made an England start.

His celebrity lifestyle — the antithesis of Johnson’s outlook — and his ability to fall out with team mates and routinely question his coaches meant that the next few years saw him drifting from Wasps to Sale with a stint in Melbourne. Despite often lighting up his matches, he remained in the international wilderness.

After six years Stuart Lancaster brought him in from the cold, though his few appearances were all off the bench, and though he was inspired in his last showing in a defeat by France in a 2015 World Cup warm-up, he never looked likely to make the tournament squad under a coach who ranked teamship and culture so highly.

LAST CHANCE

Having returned to Wasps in 2016, Cipriani has been central to turning them into the most exciting attacking team in England and they are deservedly through to this season’s Premiership semi-finals.

Despite that, Wasps have been happy to release him from the end of the current season and there has hardly been a queue of teams jostling for his signature.

Jones, having shown little interest in Cipriani since his arrival three years ago, has decided to give him one more crack.

“Purely from a rugby point of view I’m convinced there is something he can offer because he’s made changes to his game, and his character will come through,” Jones said on Thursday.

“If he’s a good character he could be in the team for a long time. If he’s a bad character, there’s always a plane back from Johannesburg.

“It’s the same for every player. We look at not only how they play rugby but how they fit into a team.

“The baggage doesn’t worry me. It’s how he behaves in front of me. I can’t control what he’s done in the past. All I can do is control what he does in the future.”

With Jones seemingly still unsure of his 10-12 combination and with a potential vacancy at fullback as Mike Brown struggles in an attacking capacity, Cipriani might just have a chance - his last chance - to force his way into the 2019 World Cup reckoning.  

“He’s got to prove he’s the best 10 in the squad, or the best 15,” Jones said.

The more pertinent challenge though is whether, at the age of 30 and with so many “lessons learned” Cipriani can finally find a way to operate alongside such ego-free personalities as Owen Farrell and Chris Robshaw without destroying the spirit and his own future at the same time.

Reporting by Mitch Phillips, additonal reporting by Neil Robinson, editing by Toby Davis

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