Danny Cipriani: Rebel with a cause célèbre

Photo: SPA Images

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It’s been a helter skelter journey being Danny Cipriani this year. Nothing unusual there you might say, but his first season Down Under has been particularly eventful given the fact that part of the reasoning behind his move to the other side of the world was to get out of the goldfish bowl of London life, and away from the incessant spotlight.

His tenure with the fledgling Melbourne Rebels in the Super Rugby tournament got off to a pretty decent start. The newcomers were expected to struggle but three victories in their first seven games and crowds of 20,000 plus in the Aussie Rules hotbed that is the capital of Victoria, caused more than a few eyebrows to raise. Cipriani’s form was promising, his talent for the unexpected flourishing in the faster, more expansive version of the game that prevails in the Southern Hemisphere’s drier climes and flatter tracks.

Considering the 23-year-old was still adjusting to a life away from home, away from friends and family, and making a different – if not exactly seismic – cultural shift while also trying to adapt to a new team with new systems, the responsibility of guiding a group of relative strangers around the park, and being the poster boy for a new code of football in a previously unconquered city, the scorecard was looking pretty rosy.

And then it all began to unravel. Not only were the off field activities starting to gain more column inches than the rugby – the infamous vodka bottle incident and the inevitable string of supposed love interests – his on-field outings were also coming under the hammer. As the Rebels promising start fell away into a season of inconsistency and a few heavy defeats – when they were bad, they were very bad – Cipriani’s defensive deficiencies were pinpointed, highlighted, and eventually punished with his axing from the line-up.

The nadir came with a broken curfew following defeat in Sydney at the hands of the NSW Waratahs. It led to his expulsion from the squad indefinitely, and his absence from the South African leg of the Rebels season.

Rumours abounded that he would be on the next flight back to Europe, that the Rebels were prepared to cut their losses and release him early from his two year contract, and that he would re-emerge sometime soon in the livery of a host of potential suitors from England, France, Japan, or whoever else was prepared to take the ‘risk’ of hiring him. Wherever his future lay, Australia no longer seemed to figure as an option.

Fast forward nine weeks and it’s a tad surprising then to find myself face to face with the amiable fly-half in a chilly (by Australian standards) dressing shed, in a far flung corner of Sydney’s northern beaches.

Cipriani had just played his first game for Warringah in the Shute Shield, Australia’s premier club rugby competition, and defeat against local rivals Manly had not dampened his enthusiasm towards the hit-out. He seemed at ease with himself in surroundings far removed from the amphitheatre of a full-house at Twickenham, where he first served notice of his true potential in a sublime cameo performance against Ireland back in 2008.

Certainly, if his reputation was preceding him, it was paid scant attention by the procession line of both kids and parents eager to get a photo, a prized autograph, or just a hello from him after the game. Whatever he may or may not have done, as far as the local juniors were concerned, Cipriani was still box office and to his credit, he fulfilled every request with a smile, and looked genuinely humbled and surprised at the level of attention.

Danny Cipriani_Rebels 2011

Cipriani has enjoyed an up and down first season with the Rebels

So, how did he go from pantomime villain to local hero in those nine weeks?

Following showdown talks between his management and the Rebels administration, Cipriani was welcomed back into the fold for the last two games of the season, and his performances on and off the field seemed to indicate some sort of rehabilitation was underway.

With the Queensland Reds’ magnificent grand final victory over the Crusaders on Saturday bringing an end to this year’s Super Rugby season, and with this being a World Cup year too, players from all five Australian franchises are either forming a part of Wallaby coach Robbie Deans’ World Cup training squad, or they have returned (or will be returning in the Reds case) to club rugby, which has just passed the halfway point of the season.

With Cipriani’s self-imposed exile from the England team – Martin Johnson said he wouldn’t pick him if he moved to the Southern Hemisphere – he’s taken the opportunity to get some club games under his belt and help out a couple of close team mates in the process. Wallaby Mark Gerrard and hooker Luke Holmes have both become tight with their English colleague during the Rebels inaugural year, and both also happen to play for Warringah, a club with a proud history that is currently facing an uncharacteristic struggle at the wrong end of the Shute Shield ladder.

Cipriani admits that his short stint – “I’m not sure how long at the moment” – with Warringah, hadn’t been in his thoughts until recently, and that it was an enjoyable stop-gap until his next commitment with the Rebels.

“I didn’t really know what the plan was because I didn’t know what our off-season was going to be,” he told me. “The Rebels have this tour of Europe coming up so that’s why I’m staying over here and not going home yet. After the tour, I’ll be staying over in England for two and a bit months but right now, I’m just going to stay in Australia and see what the Rebels want me to do in the next few weeks.”

Reading between the lines, the chance to play some club footy with his mates was also a chance to keep potential homesickness at bay.

“It’s very family orientated rugby over here and I’ve found that very comforting because obviously, I’m here on my own. Coming up to Sydney as well, I’m very good friends with Luke and Mark and they’ve got beautiful families here so I feel right at home. They welcome you in and make you feel comfortable, which is a great thing about the Rats as well because obviously, there’s that awkward feeling when you don’t quite know everyone. But they’ve all been great and I’ve enjoyed it.”

Without addressing any of the off-field issues directly, his admittance to a concerted improved effort in recent weeks was an allusion to the negative effects they’ve had on both himself, and the team.

“It’s been a massive learning curve for me and I’ve had to show a different side of myself over the last six weeks of the season and the club have been really happy with me,” he reveals. “That’s what I’m keen to do, I’m not going to leave anything to chance now. I’m really focused on making sure that next year we have a massive year, because with the team that we’ve got with world class players like [Stirling] Mortlock, [James] O’Connor and [Kurtley] Beale, alongside Cooper Vuna who’s really showing his stuff, Mark Gerrard, who’s had a great season and then the forward pack that we’ve got, we’re hopefully going to rattle a few sides.”

The signings of Beale and O’Connor are a major coup for the Rebels, sending shockwaves through Australian rugby, and Cipriani is visibly excited by the thought of teaming up with two/thirds – just add Quade Cooper – of the Wallabies gun trio of exciting young backs. Despite the early season promise of 2011, he feels that their additions should ensure that this season’s cellar dwellers are in a much stronger position to challenge next year.

“As a team, we were quite disappointed that we didn’t win a few more games,” he admits. “But a lot of the reason we lost a lot of games is that we’re a team coming together, it was our first season and we’ve got a lot to learn. We’ve got no excuses next season, especially with the world class players that we’ve signed and that we already have, so it’s going to be on us to really step up.

“For me, the inspiration is the Reds and how one year they finished near the bottom, and then in the next couple of years, they’ve completely dominated with a great coaching structure and some great players. I think the Rebels have now got a similar sort of depth and hopefully, we can do something like that.

“With the players that we’ve got, everybody’s going to be disappointed if we’re not up there next season, so there’s pressure on ourselves. But the Melbourne crowd is a fantastic crowd, they love their sport and they’ve embraced rugby. If you’d told people we’d be getting 15-20,000 people to a game, they wouldn’t have believed it. But we are and next year, hopefully there’ll be more because we’ve got Kurtley Beale and James O’Connor as well.”

The high profile acquisitions also give him a chance to play alongside some familiar faces.

“I’ve known Kurtley and James for a little while, Kurtley for a bit longer, through meeting at Under 18’s, 20’s and all that kind of stuff and obviously, I’ve got to know them a bit better being down here. James is a world class player and he’s 21-years-old, Kurtley’s a world class player and he’s still only 22, and they can both continue to shine and hopefully, they do well in the World Cup. It’s so exciting for me to come down here and play with players like that and also to play against some of the best backlines in world rugby as well, so it’s a great challenge.”

Despite the tyranny of distance, he still casts an eye back to his homeland and although he’s more than happy with the rugby decision he made in leaving the English Premiership, he’s been impressed with the quality that’s been on display this year, and the emergence of two sides in particular.

“Personally, I think the Super 15 is the best league in the world because of the standard over here and the passion that they have. But it’s been a really great season in the English Premiership if you look at how Saracens have gone and Northampton, who have done well with world class players like Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. The England side’s also looking strong and we’ll see what will happen there.”

Ah, the England question, a thorny subject and no mistake. Cipriani divides opinion amongst English followers of the game like no other. Many have turned their back on him, believing he has entered the last chance saloon once too often. While there are others who sing from the same hymn book publically, but deep down inside keep their fingers crossed that he does finally ‘mature’ and prove to be the missing magical spark that could take England forward towards a 2015 World Cup victory on home soil. That he could still be the Quade Cooper of English rugby.

Cipriani_Wilkinson_2008

A baby-faced Cipriani goes through his England paces with Jonny Wilkinson

The old maxim of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is perhaps particularly relevant in this case. But it is clear that the opportunity to take part in the World Cup in New Zealand is a realistic target in Cipriani’s eyes. He remains resolutely optimistic, and his desire to don his country’s no.10 shirt again is reassuringly unquestionable, if unlikely, in the near future.

“I’m going back there [England] soon after the Rebels tour, obviously they’ve picked their World Cup squad but if there’s any injuries, I’m staying fit and I’ll be ready. It’s a long shot and I’m not going to be thinking about it too much. But I hope they go well and keep progressing as they have been. I’m not at the forefront of their minds at the minute.”

Youthful pride projected an outward indifference towards missing out on the game’s showpiece in a couple of months time. But the painful reality of his situation flickered momentarily across his eyes.

Standing in such close proximity to him to witness that moment’s fragility behind the insouciance, one can’t help but wonder if he’s really the ‘enfant terrible’ of English rugby, or merely a mixed-up, vulnerable young man with bags of talent who’s made his mistakes under a very public spotlight.

Will he simply be another in a long line of flawed sporting mavericks or has he finally turned the corner towards potential greatness? Only time will tell, and the words he left me with as he looked ahead to next season seemed redolent of somebody who’s finally seen a bleak future writ large, if he maintained his wayward course.

“Hopefully I’ll be new and improved, and I can move on.”

The jury is still out but one thing is for sure, many more chapters are still to be written in the rugby career of one Daniel Jerome Cipriani.

First published by Ruggamatrix on July 12th, 2011

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