England’s two main contenders for the fly half jersey both shone in the Premiership at the weekend but there’s only one winner at the moment.
Danny Cipriani has been given the man of the match award in both of his outings for Gloucester so far, while George Ford bounced back from a poor performance at Exeter to score 29 points for Leicester against Newcastle, and there were a couple of examples in Saturday’s games that highlighted their attacking threat.
Cipriani’s floated pass over the top for Matt Banahan’s try late on was spectacular and drew more gasps from fans but his assist for Ruan Ackermann’s second try was an even better example of just why he is so difficult to play against at the moment.
Ackermann cut a line that was angled three or four metres back in towards the ball and Tom Dunn made the defensive error in not reacting to that line which created the hole but the way Cipriani takes the ball to the line and spots defenders that are low on energy or aren’t in position is streets ahead of most fly halves in world rugby at the moment.
Dunn didn’t move much from his starting position and Ackermann picked a great line but Cipriani has spotted that Henry Thomas, Nathan Catt and Dunn are together in midfield and chosen the perfect play to take advantage.
There are a lot of components that go into a move like that and everybody has to be singing from the same hymn sheet but it’s all about Cipriani taking the ball right to the line because if he passes it a few metres back, the line break doesn’t happen.
Bravery comes in all different forms in rugby and Cipriani knows he’s going to get melted at times when he’s calling plays like that but has the courage to do it and not release the ball until just as he’s about to take contact.
He has to take a hit from Thomas in order to create the try but he’s unbelievable at engaging the defender in front of him.
The best fly halves in the world attack the gain line and create opportunities for other players around them and Cipriani is right up there at the moment.
Ford is his closest rival in that respect in terms of the England number 10 jersey and he attacked the line, threw a dummy and went over for a try early on for Leicester against Newcastle at the weekend but he also used Kyle Eastmond and Manu Tuilagi outside him very well.
Eastmond put Tuilagi through the hole for his try after Toby Flood had rushed out of the defensive line and created a dog-leg but Ford’s presence coming around the back helps to create the try because Josh Matavesi is drawn to him as well as trying to deal with Tuilagi and he ends up getting beaten on his inside shoulder.
If you fly up at players like Eastmond, Ford or Cipriani, they’ve got the ability to take you out of the game and slot people through the holes around you so Flood was at fault rather than Matavesi but it was great attacking play as well.
If you look at all of the best examples of attacking play from fly half, it’s all about keeping your shoulders square to the defence. That’s what interests defenders and then it’s about releasing it at the right time and being able to throw the short and the long ball.
It’s bloody difficult and I’m the first to admit that I didn’t engage enough defenders by doing that in my day but players like Cipriani, Eastmond and, at times, Ford make it look very easy.
Ultimately, if Dunn works harder and tracks Ackermann’s line, that try isn’t scored, And, if Flood isn’t so eager and doesn’t come out of the line, Tuilagi’s try isn’t scored. However, it’s quality play to take advantage.
Cipriani has matured hugely over the last couple of years and we saw that against South Africa in the third Test when he managed the game really well in conditions that didn’t suit him at all.
There will be big question marks this year and he will make errors but he isn’t making many at the moment and, as well as the flashy plays and attacking skill, his game management has been exceptional.
Ford played very well against Newcastle at Welford Road but there are certainly bigger question marks over him, with his game management particularly poor against Exeter the week before.
Neither have excelled in defence over the course of their careers but Ford has been found out more physically, especially of late, and there’s no doubt that teams target him when he lines up in the number 10 channel for England.
Ford has gone missing in big games and been found wanting when it comes to understanding how you need to change the game plan throughout a match and he was the man who started at fly half in four of the five games England lost on the bounce this year.
There’s no question Cipriani is the man in possession of the England number 10 jersey and the nation will be keeping their fingers crossed that his confidence and performance levels are just as high this time next year too.
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