Sunday 24 September 2017

Danny Boy finally a man - But former teen star Cipriani still a maverick on his second coming

Danny Cipriani stretches during Wasps training this week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Danny Cipriani stretches during Wasps training this week. Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sport needs its mavericks. Trouble is, they have always walked a tightrope.

From Best through Gascoigne, from McEnroe to Higgins, just as many delight when they miss their step and fall crashing to the ground as fantasise in their astonishing ability to tantalisingly stay balanced upon the high wire.

Now more than ever, though, sport needs to remind itself that it is precisely the unconventional that should separate play from life; this is our escapist fantasy from grim reality.

In an era when team players have their individual characters sanitised beyond mundanity by media and PR management, and their on-field expression silenced into collective submission by an avalanche of 'processes' and 'learnings', so much greyness requires the odd splash of colour.

Cipriani reacting to Sale’s defeat against Munster in 2014. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Cipriani reacting to Sale’s defeat against Munster in 2014. Photo: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

Often, it feels as if sport invites only the most acquiescent zealots inside before pulling up an imposing drawbridge, thus condemning the seemingly unbiddable to slowly drown in a murky moat.

Read more: The Left Wing: Leinster's defensive worries and why in-form Donnacha Ryan should leave Ireland at 35, not 33

Or else burn atop a bonfire for so many begrudging vanities.

Danny Cipriani, it is far to say, has rarely existed in black and white terms; more red top, if anything.

Romantic

But nine years after the then 20-year-old destroyed Ireland at Twickenham - Lawrence Dallaglio reckoned it was one of the greatest displays in any sport he had ever seen - the fact that he is still basking in the sport's spotlight should make the romantic smile.

Danny Cipriani in action for England against Ireland in 2008. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Danny Cipriani in action for England against Ireland in 2008. Photo: SPORTSFILE

There have been a few missed turns in the near decade since: celebrity flings, bus prangs, drink-driving crashes, 'LOVE RAT' tittle-tattle, training ground punch-ups and arguments.

He is a product of his environment: a loving one, but also dysfunctional, which experience shows may have infused him with some emotional instability and neediness.

Once his father, Jay, left the family soon after Cipriani's birth, mother Anne was left alone with a young child living in a Putney estate in south London where opportunity wouldn't deign to post a letter, never mind knock on one's door.

Anne drove a black cab in every available hour when she wasn't minding her child, such that she earned enough to send him to the best private schools; by the age of 16, the multi-talented athlete, a prodigious high jumper, played under-age with QPR, had had trials with Reading as well as Surrey County Cricket Club.

That he also applied to be a topless dancer on an MTV show reflected, one might tentatively suggest, a demeanour not without slow-burning confidence or, indeed, committed direction.

Yet, as renowned defence coach Shaun Edwards once told me of his former charge, when Cipriani's first stint at Wasps under a still admiring Warren Gatland helped them win a 2007 Heineken Cup final, "Don't you want your out-half to be the one player who has that confidence to burn? He's a star! That's what sport needs!"

For all his vision on the field, he struggled to abandon that lack of inhibition when he left it.

A horrific ankle injury contributed a physical blow and, at 23, he was packed off to Melbourne Rebels in Australia.

Far out of sight and far out of mind.

When we met him during that time at a sponsors' event in Dublin before a Leinster friendly, two English colleagues typified the tortured relationship player and country.

One wanted to know what was the point in "talking to that idiot"; the other lamented his absence from England's stilted midfield.

He seemed then so subdued and sedate, in retreat beneath baseball cap and week-old stubble, like one whose life and career were drifting slowly beyond his incapable grasp; that he could not even gate-crash England's tainted, drink-fuelled 2011 World Cup was the ultimate irony.

When Cipriani was repatriated, initially at Sale, Leinster's Stuart Lancaster had begun a culture change as England head coach and tentatively re-installed the play-maker; he was man of the match against France on the eve of the 2015 World Cup.

Unlike Brian Ashton in 2008, who had withdrawn Cipriani's expected full Six Nations debut against Scotland after a nightclub visit, before unleashing him against Ireland, Lancaster seemed to lose his nerve, as he would so again when the tournament began.

On the eve of that tournament, Cipriani allegedly came to blows with attack coach Mike Catt after faltering in a defensive drill, not apparently his strong point, although Lancaster now begs to differ.

"Since he's come in, he's brought a very, very good rounded skills set," he says. "People assume that Danny Cipriani only does the flash stuff. But he actually does the basics very well. His kicking game is very good. Interestingly, Jimmy Gopperth has been doing the goal-kicking.

"Particularly when he was at Sale, I noticed he was very good at controlling the game and managing the game very well. He does that well.

"When he has to run set-piece starters, his ability to take the ball at the line with two runners coming at the line, his decision on who to hit is also very good.

Read more: 'The last thing we want to do is make this a Johnny Sexton-Danny Cipriani Lions showdown' - Dai Young

"Obviously, he is still a threat ball in hand. He's still got that pace that takes him on the outside of defenders.

"He's a good player. He was unfortunate in my time with England, he was up against George Ford and Owen Farrell, who were just ahead of him in the pecking order because they had opportunities before him.

"He's still got a lot to offer. He's been a real asset for Wasps because you look at how many ball players they have now.

"They've got Danny at ten, Jimmy at 12 and Kurtley Beale at 15. They could all play ten at international level.

"He has improved his defence massively, particularly at Sale. He wouldn't have got close to the World Cup squad if his defence hadn't improved.

"He's carried that through to Wasps. You don't often see people pouring through the ten channel with Danny there."

Ex-Leinster man Gopperth has also thrived at 12 with Cipriani inside him.

"We had a few injuries in the early days in the 12 position and I was happy to fill it. Danny and I play really well together," said the New Zealander.

"We both read the game really well and I'm probably the more steady hand and he has all the flair and creates a lot of opportunities.

"We seem to have a good relationship in the way we play, I have more space and time too."

Time too, perhaps, for Cipriani to show one can still be a maverick who can exist within a system, rather than being overwhelmed by it.

Irish Independent

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