(Photo: Getty Images)
By Jeremy Guscott
Eddie Jones’ comments this week regarding Danny Cipriani and the England fly-half situation are to be expected because as manager of the national side, you don’t want to say anything publicly that could compromise you in times to come.
Maybe what isn’t being said can’t be said, because it could alienate the player and Jones could well need him in the next 20 months leading up to the World Cup.
When asked about Cipriani’s omission, Jones said: “If George Ford and Owen Farrell were out injured, then there’s a possibility we’d bring Cipriani into the squad as a main No.10, but I wouldn’t have him in the squad as a supporting No.10.”
He’s left the door open. Had he said something different, he’d have had to explain himself properly over Cipriani’s omission.
Given that the Wasps No.10 is playing so well, if George Ford and Owen Farrell were to get injured the likelihood is that Cipriani would be the player who could most deal with the intoxication of an international atmosphere and pressure ahead of Marcus Smith and Piers Francis.
Cipriani’s form suggests he should be in the squad. Full stop. I watched him live at Bath a week ago and he comfortably pulled the strings and orchestrated the Wasps attack.
Jimmy Gopperth wasn’t playing so there was more responsibility on Cipriani, not having that experience outside him. He was helped by a marvellous performance by Dan Robson at No.9, but Cipriani was the man calling the shots, listening to chatter outside on where the space was. You could see he was the man in command, taking the heat in his stride.
There are very few fly-halves capable of playing as flat as he does and then taking play further. No.10s are put under immense pressure and the good ones will change their depth and width to keep the defender guessing.
Cipriani doesn’t make his plays consistent and repeatable; he changes his position and by doing that he dictates to the defence, rather than the defence imposing on him. The flatter you are the more you are in control because the defender is generally watching the ball, or you. A good one does both – but very few can.
If you’re stood only three metres deep but ten metres wide, the likelihood is the defender can get man and ball, but because Cipriani is such a natural footballer, he has the ability to change the scenario. He can take the ball early or late, by either running closer in to receive the ball, or letting it continue on its trajectory and taking it a metre wider, depending on what the defender is doing.
He can feel that pressure and adapt. Simply good players will need to look up and see how the defender is shaping up, but instinctive players like Cipriani perceive it in their peripheral vison.
Other players will be more step by step – have a look up, decide what to do, go left or right – Cipriani does it when all of his senses combine to move him into the right position. And because of that, last week he managed to slow down the Bath defensive line speed and cause them problems by dictating the game with his positioning.
His defence at international level would be questionable. But his tackle statistics in the Premiership this season are around 73 per cent completion – the same as Owen Farrell, but behind George Ford (85 per cent) and Marcus Smith (75 per cent) – so defence alone cannot be the reason he should not play for England. Maybe age could be a factor if England are looking to build for the 2023 World Cup – but in the here and now he’s definitely one of the top three 10s.
There have been clashes with fellow players and coaches over the years, most notably Josh Lewsey at Wasps and Mike Catt with England, but that shouldn’t define you or label you – everyone is manageable.
It seems strange to me that Cipriani is not a third choice but would immediately become first choice if Ford and Farrell were injured. Even considering that as a possibility, means Jones needs to integrate him soon.
Cipriani has comfortably four or five seasons left in him when you take into account the number of injuries and time out of the game he has had. He keeps himself in great shape and it still all looks incredibly easy, which it isn’t once you approach 30. Few people see the hard work that goes in – the extra training, conditioning, physio – but he has had fewer miles in his legs and he’s reconditioned compared to the wear and tear of someone else his age.
Due to his speed and reflexes he makes it difficult for a defender to wipe him out face on – and many have tried for years. Ford has a similar ability but a different mindset as Cipriani plays closer to the cut-off point of where you can attack flat. Ford can be pressured back but it takes a tough defence to push Cipriani more than five metres deep.
Danny says he’ll do all he can to get back into the squad but he may know the real reason he’s not in there. One day it could all come out.
If he does somehow get back involved and play as well as he did when he first made his Test debut back in 2008 it would be marvellous.
For a player with the ability he has it’s a crying shame he has played only 14 Test matches, starting just four times. It’s not a true reflection of his talent, more about not being the player or person the national coach wanted at the time.