England's culture of discipline is crumbling at the worst time
The revelation that Danny Cipriani has been arrested on suspicion of drink-driving, mere hours after his man-of-the-match performance for an England XV against the Barbarians, adds weight to an impression that the wilder personalities in Stuart Lancaster’s squad are veering off the rails once more.
In the space of two-and-a-half weeks, Lancaster has potentially lost three players from the World Cup reckoning after the latest reported lapses in their chequered disciplinary histories. First Manu Tuilagi, reverting to the violent stupidity of his younger days, was banned after admitting to the assault of two female police officers.
Then serial transgressor Dylan Hartley fell by the wayside for his senseless butt on Saracens hooker Jamie George. Now, as Cipriani finds himself at risk of throwing away the finest opportunity of his career, England awake to perhaps the most regrettable set-back of all.
Cipriani’s path back to the international fold has been protracted and tortuous. Only at the age of 27, under Lancaster’s calming aegis, did he appear to have sublimated his vexed past of partying against his employers’ wishes and his fondness for the celebrity lifestyle. Following treatment for a concussion sustained not on the pitch but on a night out in Leeds, he freely acknowledged that he would have to wise up if he was ever to realise his potential.
That ambition was being gradually nursed back to life. A try against Italy in the Six Nations, despite a minimum of game-time, and then an immaculate performance at Twickenham last Sunday helped reaffirm his World Cup credentials as England’s provisional World Cup squad prepared for a summer camp of altitude training in Colorado.
While judgment should be reserved on Cipriani before the full details of the alleged drink-drive incident in west London are established, the notion of his comeback coming to grief on yet another off-field indiscretion is a sorry one indeed.
It also poses an urgent question to Lancaster about whether his insistence upon a whiter-than-white code of conduct among his players is working. The recent spate of recidivism among his players is too alarming to be dismissed as mere coincidence.
For all the rhetoric about upholding the responsibility of the shirt, and for all the stirring lectures by military veterans to which England have been subject during this World Cup build-up, young men like Hartley and Tuilagi have proved no less disposed to return to their worst habits.
Hartley’s charge-sheet, in particular, is beyond the pale. His latest citation for the attack on George has taken his combined exile for foul play to an astonishing 54 weeks. At the age of 29, he has spent over a year on the periphery as a consequence of his misdemeanours. Lancaster recognised, wisely, that in World Cup year he represented a liability that England could ill afford.
The head coach has laid down the strictest parameters for the behaviour he expects his charges to exemplify. He has already betrayed his ruthless side by dropping Tuilagi from the World Cup for an act of idiocy too far. He followed the same instinct with Hartley, in whom he identified a streak of ungovernable recklessness.
Those precedents do not offer a happy portent for Cipriani, given how profoundly an offence such as drink-driving is abhorred by the England management. The indications are that Lancaster’s culture of discipline, such a hallmark of his tenure so far, could be crumbling at the worst possible time.